I am almost certain that it was the fourth grade. I was ten years old. It strikes me that this would have been the year my sister left for college, leaving behind much of her considerable wardrobe.
I did not yet know where to find my sister’s bras, but I did know that others could be taken from the hamper. In the morning before school I snatched one. My mother prepared breakfast in the kitchen, my father readied for work before the bathroom mirror. I slipped into their bedroom and reached through the dirty clothes until my little hand hit upon silk and the unmistakable feel of brastraps.
It was nude with small bits of padding that felt like the stuffing of a pillow, with coarse lace on the cups. Even I knew it wasn’t a terribly nice bra.
I brought it back to my room where there was a big yellow chest that I could just fit my fist beneath. The chest held all my childhood toys: Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, a basketball, baseballs, a bat, gloves, a tennis racquet, model rockets, darts, a rock tumbler, Hot Wheels, Legos.
We had a special treat at school that day. Buses shuttled us to a symphony hall, virtually empty in the afternoon heat, dark and perfectly tranquil and very quiet but for the music. I closed my eyes into a sort of stupor and fixated on the thought of the bra. The band would stretch around my chest, and the two straps over my shoulders. One wraps around, two go over, one wraps around, two go over. I hypnotized myself with these words.
The sounds of the living room television indicated that my mother had not yet begun preparing dinner for my father. There was only one room in the house where I could be assured of complete privacy. It jutted from the hall connecting my bedroom with the living room. I did not want to walk down that hall with the bra in my hands because my mother would surely see me. I knew she would soon begin to prepare dinner, for my father arrived home from work at the same time every evening without fail. All I need do was wait. I simply had to watch television until my time had come.
Every afternoon I watched cartoons depicting the adventures of anthropomorphic animal characters. Some were good, others were bad. That day I watched three malicious hound dogs do evil. They were doddering lumps covered by red sweaters and blue trousers, with hot dog–shaped snouts and shiny black noses. The mother of these beasts was the most malicious and grotesque of all. She was purely rotten. No child could possibly find in her any trace of the fair virtues associated with the female gender. This was not the case with all of the characters in my cartoons. Some of them con- noted feminine sensuality most aptly—they wore high heels and tight skirts, they had fashionable haircuts, long eyelashes, and cute makeup. Mother hound was not like this. She was matronly, her body shapeless, with two saggy breasts and a face like a dog’s. In the middle of her enormous mouth was a token splotch of red.
When at last the coast was clear I crept into the white tile bathroom and locked the door behind me. I lowered the toilet lid, sat down, and removed my shirt. This bra was the first piece of women’s clothing that I was aware of wearing for the first time. I had only ever previously worn panties. Putting on a bra was the next step. My first bra would be the next step. The next step in what? The first time I had worn panties I was not capable of comprehending transgression. I wore them purely based on sensation and compulsion, similar to the childish impulse to eat glue. What stuck in my memory was not the first moment I pulled on the panties, what stuck was being told “no” in a way I had never been told “no” before. It was an accented “no,” a “no” that said, this is wrong for a dangerous reason. This was my foundation. Cross dressing was a transgression of the highest order. Under no circumstances should I ever do this. I should never. Not for any reason imaginable. In the white tile bathroom I held this bra with full knowledge of its aberrancy. There was no reason at all for a boy of my age to wear a bra. Even many girls my age would have no need for one. I comprehended that this act was strictly prohibited. It was plain how willfully I desired this, this desire far more potent and less legible than any other.
These facts made this act transcendent.
To actually feel it grabbing hold of my body. I twisted this way and that to better revel in its grip. It was on me! I was within it! I rubbed the silk of the cups. I ran my fingers along the straps. I snapped one.
I stood up and looked in the vanity so I could see it on me, and when I witnessed what I had done I felt a cool drop of shame.
This was not a thing a boy ever did. Never. To wear panties was a strange act, certainly, but it was not so far different from wearing Hanes briefs. By contrast, a bra—a bra—for this there was abso- lutely no precedent, no purpose.
An image of the mother hound from my cartoons entered my mind; with revulsion it hit me that she and I both wore bras.
Instantly all desire to wear this article fled my body.
I had never felt revulsion at the thought of something I was wearing. I had never felt any feeling that remotely resembled this
I shoved aside the thought of the mother hound and tried to focus on pretty things.
Minutes later I wanted nothing more than to wear it outside the bathroom, but I knew I couldn’t.
Somehow a tawdry novel was thrust into my young hands.
This lurid story set upon my germinating mind. A husband and wife are dispensed a lysergic acid diethylamide–like substance, and as a result they develop psychic powers. They escape these experiments and hide, one day producing a little girl with the extraordinary talent to ignite fires by mere will. The mother dies, and soon enough the father and daughter are hunted down and forced behind locks even their minds cannot break. The father is drugged into a stupor by a craven therapist, and during their sessions he accidentally uses his powers to release something suicidal in the analyst. It is a desire for women’s clothes.
The very last time the therapist dressed as a woman was decades ago. He lived in a college fraternity where his erstwhile brothers discovered his itch: he is made to scrub the kitchen in a whorish getup of lingerie, all the while in fear of being forced to perform upon the young men surrounding him. Years later, when the therapist again feels the need to cross dress, it is an unambiguous signal of the homosexuality he is desperate to subdue. Its return is intolerable. There is only one way out. Just before ending himself he puts on his wife’s bra and panties and masturbates into them.
This was the first time I had ever found a person like me in the world. A man who was not made to dress like a woman but who chose to.
The first person I ever discovered like myself in the world was a feeble monstrosity of Freudian cliché who ended himself as a shameful abomination.
As I read the story of this man I discovered for the first time the existence of the word masturbate. I did not know its meaning. It clearly filled some crucial space within the therapist’s psychology, so I used the dictionary to learn it. It was a Saturday morning; I was wont to awaken long before my parents emerged from their bedroom, and I savored the bookish morning hours before the house filled with noise and motion. It was uncommon for me to stop and uncover the precise meaning of an unknown word. I would just continue on, unbothered by the lack of a specific definition. But I wanted to know exactly what the dictionary said about this word. I knew this was a crucial thing. I remember very clearly that on my first try I confused it with masticate, and I pictured the doctor in his wife’s things, chewing. This could not be. I tried again.
I must have been in the sixth grade. I immediately recognized what activity this word referred to. I had only previously heard it named with slang that the older children in my neighborhood spoke with a power beyond my means. Here it was in Merriam-Webster’s efficient diction. Masturbate. Anyone could see that this was the most hygienic term for it. It was a word for doctors, drained of everything that gave the slang its power and ease.
The other word this tawdry novel taught me to utter was transvestite. I now knew that I was a transvestite. Furthermore, I could not possibly be alone in my transvestism. This word troubled me. It seemed to aspire to the consummate sterility achieved by masturbate, but there was something very wrong. I did not like the sound of transvestite. Without question there were far ruder ways of naming me, but this one had a sinister enough air. That closing -ite made me sound like some breed of alien, some insect. The word felt like tongs used for handling dirty things.
I heard it spoken for the first time two years later, when my mother threw it at me in the one conversation we have ever had about my ache. As it emerged from between her lips I saw that she could hardly abide its utterance. My mother, who I never heard curse, who would not even speak unquestionably minor profanities such as crap. Now her small mouth had released these sounds. How had someone like her ever come across such a word? How could such things exist in her vocabulary?
Or mine? That morning when I acquired masturbate and transvestite, I felt a measure of illicit pride. I smiled. I was certain that if my parents were aware of the words in this book they had given me it never would have entered my possession.
At times the television showed my young eyes remarkable sights.
“Coffee, tea, or me?” She swished angelically toward the dining table, her body in a strapless French maid costume that ended in a brazen skirt. Her older brother wore a noisy suit of armor. The joke was that at the party the boys would not cease with their attentions, so she made him switch. No sooner did she appear home in the armor than the audience shrieked in anticipation. Her brother loped across the living room to their screams, the dress suiting his slender frame.
The family’s young daughter is secretly a robot. One day the nosy neighbors call child welfare. A doctor is summoned to examine her health. Left with no alternative, they dress up her young brother. Many emasculating punchlines follow.
In return for saving Ricky’s life, luckless Derek demands that he be his date for a party. He is dressed adorably in a skirt and frilly blouse, and made up with consummate skill. For the entire night he fends off unknowing advances his with his limp hand and falsetto.
Always the young man appears so absolutely estranged in the clothes of the female gender. It is an utter indignity. There is nowhere to hide from the world’s grins.
Two young hustlers sell stolen goods and illicit schemes from the back of their van. Eventually they withdraw a life-sized cutout of Bo Jackson, over which is draped an ugly orange dress. If one were inclined to make an ill-gotten gain, Bo might be blackmailed with a photo of this assemblage. “I guess Bo know cross dressing too.”
I had a poster of Bo Jackson above my bed. I lifted weights in imitation of him.
Will and Carlton bet Ashley and Hillary that the boys can do a “girl” thing better than the girls can do a “boy” thing. The girls build an exercise bike, and the boys sew a dress. In the final scene Carlton strolls down the stairs in the hideous garment. Hilary comments on his swaying ass: “Got any fries to go with that shake?” Will asks Carlton if he’s going to take that. He replies, “I kind of like it.”
That aired in 1991. I was 13. I admired the cool and casual masculinity with which Will effortlessly made Carlton the butt end of his jokes.
Whenever I happened to see such things it was as though through a curtain’s narrow gap. There were no shows about people who wanted to cross dress. There were only the episodes in which cross dressing became a plot mechanism. Only the plot’s comedic mechanics could induce a male to such things. Could this gag cease to be a gag, could it become a search that the protagonist could not escape? Would he then reveal a proper world in which I could live?
These images split me. Inside I yearned to be that boy so forced; outside I gave the appropriate responses. If I happened to witness these plots beside another human being, my face purpled.
In the years that followed, daytime television discovered the shock that could be garnished from trannies. This new mode was completely unlike the whimsical presentation of cross dressing on the sitcoms. It was exploitation. It used a human being’s need for validation to elicit the pleasure of the bellowing masses. In spite of the degradation, these episodes allowed my first glimpses of men who were unafraid to declare their preference to be feminine. This was a revelation, even if it could barely be heard among the throngs of pleasure-seekers howling at their dilemmas.
For the better part of my first two decades this was all I had to grab a hold of. This, and that tawdry novel, and a few other odds and ends. This dross from the popular culture was all that I knew of my kind.
I was in no way prepared to speak for myself. I did not have the wherewithal to utter so much as a single sentence on the subject of my nature. I only clutched this dross to my chest in the naïve belief that it must speak for me. This was all that existed of my kind. Absolutely nothing in my world indicated otherwise.
In the year that I reached high school our household acquired a modem and we went online. At this time there were not yet search engines as they currently exist. The ones that did exist were not known to me. Web browsers themselves were still quite novel things. To navigate, one relied on directories of useful websites. One might purchase a printed index of addresses that could be entered into a computer.
In these books were listings of popular discussion boards. Anyone might participate in the conversation by typing a string of characters into the machine. rec.arts.sf.tv. sci.physics.relativity.
The great majority of these conversations were parceled among eight major hierarchies: for instance, news.* and humanities.* and sci.*. These hierarchies provided a way of ordering the many subjects on which people might want to converse. They formed coherence from chaos and declared what matters were worthy of comment.
There was also the hierarchy named alt.*.
alt.* absorbed the topics that the other hierarchies did not want any part of.
I soon discovered alt.sex.*.
The asterisk meant that many different words might follow “alt. sex.” Each of these words would correspond to the precise form of alternative sexual practice to be discussed. Most of the words taking the place of the asterisk were things whose exact meaning I did not know. I could easily sense their aberrancy. The book whose listings I consulted for direction on the early Internet offered a few coy definitions. I can recall that it glossed “alt.sex.bondage” with the sentence, If you love something let it go, and if it comes back to you tie it up. Whatever did they mean by that?
I discovered a group called alt.sex.stories that was filled with things that horrified me. I nevertheless persisted within alt.sex.stories because I was so greatly intrigued by it. Eventually my eyes met with a demure fantasy. It was sensitive and endearing and had barely any sex in it. I liked it so much that I returned to it again and again, and eventually I printed it out so that I could have it ready- to-hand at any moment. At any moment I might like to read the words in this story because for the first time I recognized something that felt true.
A woman returns from France bearing luxurious lingerie for her boyfriend. She dresses him in this finery and puts him into a beautiful dress. She does his makeup. They travel to some sort of an engagement where he is beheld by an admiring crowd. He does this in subservience to her wishes. They leave, and she asserts how much their bond depends upon his willingness to furnish her desire. She grants him a just reward.
There it is, the first printed matter pertaining to my ache that I ever held in my hands. More than that. The first ever positive statement on the nature of my being. The first true utterance made by a being like myself.
It is a simple thing of 3,000 words containing every desire my young mind knew it would never fulfill. I read it differently than I had ever read anything before. This discovery marked the template for how I would reveal to myself the layers of my psyche. I would happen upon an object and sense that it held something for me. I would know that it pertained to this subject of which I could not speak. My mind would not cease its nagging for me to return until I had uncovered the kernel and added it to my stock.
Slowly a personality is built.
I knew this story told my desires. But during the period in which I read it day after day, if you had asked me to say what I most wanted I would have only told you about the bars of my cell.
I did not have proper desires then. At that point in my life I only had wishes and compulsions. The wishes were of no value to me whatsoever. There was simply nothing they could be used for. The compulsions had some trade. They brought me to a place where I could experience a fleeting pleasure, which then became humiliation and shame. I experienced these once and again in succession, day after day. This was how I got by, those short-lived freedoms leaving me with nothing but shame.
At this point in my life it was the absolute most I could do. To even do that much was an act of almost complete exertion. I had no hope of surpassing it.
I would simply have to accept this life until something changed.
Everything that happens in the world is a proof. There are things we wish to have proven about ourselves and others that we do not. But surely we must accept that every act we commit proves something about who we are.
My actions in pursuit of the female gender informed me that I was not meant to be a man in the mold to which I once aspired. This is a thing that for many years I could neither admit nor accept. I still expected that I should slice off every last blemish until I exhibited the popular image of a masculinity without fault. I knew that this was within my capacities. With the proper determination and discipline I could attain it.
I really did want to be a normal man. I cannot give a satisfying explanation of where this deep-seated desire came from. I have long known that my true preferences run toward the outliers of our world. I cannot say why I feared to join them. I only know that my hopes toward normalcy did not run as deep as that other desire. I always felt that my wish to embody a bulletproof masculinity was not true. It was a thing that was taught to me. This other need, it is elemental.
I do not know how many proofs were required. I can point to no ultimate proof that at last demonstrated what was immutable within me. On what do our stories pivot? I do not find hinges in my lifetime. I do not believe that trauma has the power to persuade. I see only the gradual accumulation of what will not be denied. We may attempt to place ourselves on certain trajectories, but what really determines when a mind is prepared for that next step? How do new possibilities fall within the sphere of our identities?
These changes are the things about ourselves that are the least susceptible to narrative. I have tried to re-imagine the many afternoons of my adolescence passed in the white tile bathroom, the Friday and Saturday nights illuminated by the television screen. I have tried to detect some sort of chronology for them, some signs of whatever processes were underway. My findings are thus: but for a handful of moments there is very little to separate one episode from another.
On the day I left for college I brought with me no female clothing. I busied myself with that first semester of freedom. One fall evening I happened to see an old bra that belonged to no one, and the very next thought was that I might have it. With great scorn I extinguished this wish. I abided in my clothesless state for perhaps a year. By the following fall I was living alone in an apartment and had begun again accumulating garments.
It was also that fall that I managed to purchase a bottle of depilatory cream one crisp morning. I had never before declared my preference in a store where anyone might see. The angst that one small bottle cost me was boundless.
In that apartment I began to buy things online.
Clearly there were changes afoot. Things were moving forward, as it is said. But some crucial ingredient was missing. All of my life in that apartment was still dominated by shame. I was still possessed by the image of an unbreakable masculinity that I could not stop failing.
For all the many times I cross dressed in that apartment, I never believed they made me a cross dresser. I also knew that they made me a cross dresser.
What is the difference between performing actions and inhabiting them?
I could have done absolutely anything I wanted to in that apartment.
They say our minds are the most complex objects we have ever observed, greater so than the galaxies made of hundreds of billions of suns, incomparably more intricate than computers bearing more information than a human might produce in ten lifetimes. Perhaps this can explain how a mind can want something so utterly and find itself incapable of possessing it.
I had no capacity to articulate my desire. This is the crucial step. We must literally utter the words, “I want . . .” We must hear our own voice say what we want. This is the first step, but it is not sufficient. We must practice. We must gather our purpose for that moment when we will say these words with absolute certainty. Absolute. We must practice as though we cannot fail, until at last we believe. We must say these false words ceaselessly until we repeat them without the tiniest fraction of doubt. This is what we call truth. Only then might we utter our truth in the presence of another soul. We must speak our truth with such force that whoever shall hear will never, never doubt us.
It is a very hard thing to say even a few words without any doubt at all.
What I do not understand is how one learns to speak for the first time. The years alone in my apartment were in this sense silent years. The years after college were likewise silent. I was beginning to work my way toward this utterance.
Excerpted from The Surrender, which will publish from Anomalous Press on March 31, 2016.
Featured Image from Robert Altman’s 3 Women