There’s a Man I don’t know who has decided that “Cathy ‘Bug’ Brennan” is “harassing” him, uttering the hate speech of knowing he’s a man. He’s one of thousands, all uttering the same claim and jousting with me, a woman they’ve never met.
I’ve never met any of these men. It’s not that I don’t know such men; I do. Two of my favorite Twitter accounts are such men, and they don’t seem the least bit bothered by the fact that I know they’re men — as they also know that they’re men and that you cannot actually, ever, change your sex.
“Change your sex”
Does these men not know how often I longed to “change my sex”?
The first faint glimmer of a knowing of a conversation to “change my sex” arose when I was told as a little girl that it wasn’t “lady like” to get down and dirty. Rough and tumble play wasn’t for little girls. That’s for boys, they said. They side eyed my mother, who willingly dressed me in a boy’s long sleeve Planet of the Apes shirt and boys-style Garanimals. “She’s a tinker,” she told them. I felt comfortable in my clothes and loved by my mother, and what else would I need in this world? Sure, I got called “boy” and “young man,” but being all of five or six, I didn’t have any shame about my appearance and I certainly had no idea what androgyny was, what gender nonconformity meant, what homosexuality was. I just thought I was a boy. I did what boys did, I played with boys. I mean, I knew I was a girl, but I wore a baseball cap like a boy, I could outrun and outplay boys. We were on the same team. Tinker, after all. Tinker, a benign slur for Irish travelers that I came to understand meant I was a little queer in the odd sense. It wasn’t til later that I understood how fully queer I was.
A few years into my gender blurring life and I knew I wasn’t a boy, because the urgency with which the world at large commented on my appearance intensified. My first holy communion at age 8 terrorized me, not only for the prayers I had to memorize, but for the white bride of Christ dress and veil my mother so lovingly selected for me from the Sears department store where she worked in catalog for a time. I secretly longed to wear the tiny man suits afforded to my brothers in baby Christ, but it was no secret that I was disappointed in the garb afforded my “gender.” While my girl sisters in Christ couldn’t get enough of parading around in their wedding dress, I struggled with the two occasions I was forced to endure this abomination. Photos at THE MALL, where I had to wear my dress to and from, and the day itself. I begged my mother to park as close as possible to JC Penneys’ photo studio so no one would see me. She obliged, as her reward was angelic photos of her darling daughter and a convenient prop to further the fiction that I wasn’t a huge lesbo at 8. The other occasion, of course, was the day itself, the big event, the taking of the body and blood of Christ into my self, my full membership in the church as a Communion-taking parishioner. My joy at being able to eat the cracker was overshadowed, again, by the extreme self-consciousness that accompanied the death march from the pew to the front of the Church to accept the Body and the Blood. Catherine Margaret Brennan, indeed. The early morning of that day blessedly gave way to afternoon and the return home, where a tray of cold cuts from Lloyd’s Deli awaited for us to celebrate my new status. More blissful for me was the immediate stripping off of THE DRESS and a return to my shorts, t-shirt and sneakers, accomplished so quickly that my mother yelled at me and ordered me to put it back on for family photos in front of the rose bush, but I had already fled the location by that point.
All the while I am in this world, being called a boy, being told I looked like a boy, being called young man.
Age 12, I was in love with my friend. It wasn’t theoretical. I knew what homosexuality was because I read the biography of Montgomery Clift by the time I was 9, having secreted it out of our basement where all the items we never unpacked from our move from the City lived. This was no book for a normal child, but it was essential reading for a gay child, and despite the fact that Monty was a man, I knew his story was also mine. It didn’t escape my notice that homosexuality was a sin, being Catholic provides this intimate knowledge on a weekly basis, every Sunday in catechism, as it matters most to God, apparently, that you know the rules that you cannot break. It was 1983. I was plagued by real romantic longing, the kind completely divorced from a sexual root because I barely knew I had a body, but still very much aware of the wrongness of this affection. My friend, being not the failure of heterosexual conditioning that I was, properly discussed her crushes on the older boys at our middle school and the heart throbs in Tiger Beat, and when she expressed a desire for SOME BOY to ask her to one of our school dances I felt a rising up in my chest that I now know to be envy. I wanted her to want me, I wanted what this SOME BOY didn’t even know he had. I wanted something I knew I could never get. Or, at least, I thought I knew I could never get. And because I knew homosexuality was a mortal sin, I prayed instead to become SOME BOY.
It never worked, my prayers, and I learned to not trust God.
My mother loved me very much and decided, despite her willingness in the beautiful 1970s to allow me to dress “as boys do,” that the 1980s, with its divine retribution on homosexuals, that I needed straightening out. Dr. Leonard Weise, or Wise, or Weiss, I honestly don’t remember the spelling of his last name but I do recall thinking he was far from wise, was tasked with therapisting me. By this point in our family story, my mom progressed from Sears catalog to the great state of New York and its amazing health insurance for its employees and dependents, so I suspect but cannot confirm that the frequency of my visits corresponded to the strength of the coverage the union secured for its members. Every week was the same – I met with him for 45 minutes, he asked me questions about my life at school, my friends, what boys did I like, did I ever feel like I wanted to marry my female friends. Having become accustomed to lying like any young homosexual desperate to avoid detection, an ass kicking, eternal damnation, I told him the words he wanted to hear. I liked boys, I only liked boys, let’s talk about the boys I like.
What kind of a man has a job talking to 14 year old girls about their emerging sexual feelings for boys?
The last 5 minutes of each 50-session belonged to my mother, where I was asked to go to the waiting room while the good doctor regaled my mother with my faux tales of heterosexuality. During this time, I was also encouraged to feminize my appearance. Being hopelessly unable to coordinate my own feminine outfits gave me the perfect cover to arrange shopping dates at the mall with the objects of my desire, because, after all, we were just shopping for the right clothes to wear so boys would like me.
I never really bought any of these feminine clothes, though. And I still wished I was SOME BOY but I knew enough never to mention it.
14 also brought the most wretched of all signifiers of my womanhood. I always played outside, from early morning til as late as my mother would shout for me on our backyard deck, and all kinds of games, mostly with boys. Was there a fort to be built? Yes! Was there football? Yes! It didn’t matter that my breasts started to develop, my physical ability still signified I was a boy and could play with boys. My bleeding body, however, ended my easy playing days. I was laying on my mother’s and father’s bed (where they never slept together, pretending it was because he worked nights) where our window unit air conditioner was located, writhing in some kind of stomach pain. I’m sure I knew what menstruation was, having read Judy Blume, but I didn’t know it was going to happen to me. I mean, how could this happen to me, have you met me? My older brother came into the bedroom to cajole me into playing Smear the Queer or some other ritualized abuse game and he yelled LOUDLY that I SHIT MY PANTS. I felt the blood rush to my face in hot shame as my hand reflexively touched the front of my white terry shorts and felt the sticky of my period and I knew both that I hadn’t shit my pants and that my life was shit now.
“You can’t play. You’re disgusting,” he said and I knew if I was not a girl my life wouldn’t be over and I would find happiness in this life, in this body.
16 and I got a job, I sold shoes at the aforementioned JC Penneys where I terrorized the full time sales people (who made a career out of shoe selling) with my exceptional sales skill. Having become quite a practiced liar at this point was the direct cause of my exceeding all sales quotas (oh, they’ll stretch, oh they won’t stretch, yes they look good, oh, you lost your receipt? We can still return them – this trick used to keep your commission but accommodate the customer.) Working meant money and money meant freedom. Freedom meant the hope that someday I could live my own life as a spinster; I certainly wasn’t ready to live as a woman who loved women as a man loves a woman. But I wasn’t free enough to avoid the judgment of my mother, and the emerging fact of life that my breasts required a bra, for some reason. For some reason, women “have to” wear a bra, I never agreed with this, still don’t, but I wasn’t yet free and was subject to my mother’s rules.
“Let’s go to JC Penneys for a bra, you can use your employee discount,” and the hot shame flooded my face, again. If I was Mike Walsh (shoe salesman) or Frank Forthoffer (shoe sales department manager) I’d never face this predicament. Worse still, the intimates department was located right next to the shoe department. I begged my mother to stay far away from me and to use the code word “arb” for bra (wow, what a clever anagram, I’m sure no one could ever break that code). I never prayed as hard to be a boy as I did rifling thought the double A training bras in lavender wooden discount bins of the Penneys intimates department.
My sex change prayers did not work, but I did not take to wearing a bra. My coworkers saw me and mocked me, and I revenged them by continuing to outsell them, a very aggressive, unladylike thing to do, no doubt.
I learned one thing from my years of praying as a child and young adult to become a boy, a man, a male – you cannot change your sex. You’re born with a body. That is your body for the entire time you’re alive on this beautiful planet. You are free to do what you want with your body, to the extent that you do no harm with your body to others. You’re free to abuse your body with alcohol, with drugs, with food, with caffeine, you’re free to refine it with exercise and meditation, you’re even free to cosmetically alter it so as to make it appear dissimilar to what it actually is – elf ears? Sure, if you have the money. Breast enhancements? Why not, it’s your body! Surgical castration of your penis and construction of hole to approximate female anatomy? Yep. It’s your body – do with it as you see fit.
But none of these alterations makes you something other than what you are.
Stating this fact out loud – that you cannot change your sex – enrages men. They absolutely cannot stomach that someone (radical feminists, actual reality) says no to them. They believe that they can change their sex, because their idea of what a woman is so desperately shallow. It seems that for them, “being a woman” means “being whatever I, man, say a woman is.” Because I’ve been willing to say no to them for years at this point, I continue to be a target of their ire. The irony of this is not lost on me, as I’ve shared their longing to be something other than I am in this world. I know what it’s like to feel like you are in the wrong body.
But it cannot be. It can never be. It’s not a matter of not enough people willing Tinkerbell to live. It’s just that Tinkerbell never existed in the first place.
For the men still tilting at the windmill, I send you my deepest love and compassion, and I will never lie to you. You can never change your sex. And no amount of yelling at “Cathy ‘Bug’ Brennan” will ever change this. Long after I am dead, long after you are dead, long after we have dried up and blown away, you will still be male, and I will still be female. I refuse to say otherwise just to make you feel better. But I do understand your insistence, your determination, your overwhelming capacity to obliterate all naysayers in the furtherance of your prayers.
It is just simply that I’m not willing to lie any more, ever again. And this lack of willingness isn’t really about you, dear sirs. It’s about me and the price of believing in a fiction that will never be.