The earliest memories I have firmly in my brain start around age 4 or 5. What memories I have from earlier are more glimpses but nothing immersive. I might remember a single scene and there are very, very few of these.
Around age 6 or 7 I have this distinct memory of being in a hiding place – a leftover cardboard box from some large appliance. I was sitting in there looking at the Sears catalog and in particular at women’s underwear. I can’t tell you what those that brought up other than to say there was nothing sexual about it at six.
What I can say is that it had something to do with wanting to be in a female body. You can and should ask “why the heck would you think that?” and my answer is that after looking at the catalog I had a daydream of going through a machine and coming out a little girl in a dress. Certainly an odd daydream for a 6 yr old boy. I suspect that daydream was repeated many, many times for it to still be fairly vivid after another fifty years has gone by.
This isn’t to say I didn’t do a lot of things that boys do, and that children do. I got into scraps with other boys, and played cops and robbers and kickball and all those other things that eat up a child’s energy. I was in cub scouts and went through those badges.
Yet all along that sense of my body not being “right” persisted. It was so strong that I remember sitting in a bathtub. Remember when you still fit in a tub and could actually float? While I was in the bathtub I was investigating my body and was wishing very hard for it to change. Then I would feel around and find my prayers hadn’t been answered. Over the coming years the desire stayed the same but I lost that childlike wonder that maybe God would fix me.
Without as much detail, as I moved through puberty and had sexual thoughts there was a lot of wondering about how it must feel to be the girl or woman. I wouldn’t say I felt entirely awkward as male, but definitely not entirely right.
While I was dressed as a boy, it wasn’t a complete disguise. While there was teasing, and all children are teased here and there, I don’t think it was that uncommon in grammar school or even later to be called a “girl”, because for boys that was just about the worst thing you could be called. However, while I never had a frank conversation (ever) about my sexual attractions, there was some name calling, but in High School the worst thing for a guy is to be called queer (ok, another word). But high school was the model of sanity compared to middle school and unlike middle school nobody beat me up.
I wouldn’t say I had any feminine behaviors, but somehow there was a persistence to be called gay. If I was oriented toward guys at that age it was pretty well repressed, and a conservative jewish upbringing would not have changed that. Did I? There’s a maybe there.
There was a bit of playing around with female things when I could be alone and get away with it. Nothing I owned myself though.
I’ll just finish by saying that feeling obviously never went away. I suppose that given the opportunity to “fix” myself at birth I would be whole either as a girl or a boy. There’s something profoundly wrong about feeling those feelings as a small child and not even having the comfort of being able to talk with your parents or friends about it. It is truly an awful thing to grow up with.
For those who read this and ask why I couldn’t just “be happy” all I can say is that I and many others did. I tried so hard that I married and fathered a child and for about 15 or 20 years managed to keep it all down to a dull roar. Nothing was ever normal or uncomplicated with my body in all that time.
I do want to finish by being clear about one thing. While I never lost that sense of conflict until a few years ago, I had plenty of moments of joy. It is not fair to paint being trans as the only thing in my life. I enjoyed science and still do. I love playing role playing games and that hasn’t changed (Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft, etc). The work of my hands in craft has always been a joy to me as well whether it is something I did well at or poorly (all those misshapen ceramics!).
I was also lucky that the dysphoria wasn’t deeper. I was never tempted to suicide or other forms of self harm like cutting at that age. What depression I may have had wasn’t in the way of living. Sadly forty percent of trans youth do attempt suicide and far to many succeed.
There are those who naively think that this is some new phenomenon. That transgender people just didn’t exist in the past. I’ll ask them to remember that unacceptable people from society’s viewpoint were shoved to the outskirts of town, jailed or killed outright. A trans person might end up living a relatively short and uncomfortable life in sex work, or enter the theatre arts (back then you didn’t need a degree to act), or otherwise scrape by living amidst other unacceptable people like addicts and prostitutes and men of ill repute as well.
The more fortunate were either able to hide it somewhat or get by with it. Given life expectancies a century ago I could easily have gone to the grave having never talking about my secret shame.