“Let’s play GI Joes,” my older brother says. I hate this game. I don’t care about guns or soldiers or fighting.
“No, I don’t want to,” I tell him. He pins me to the ground and screams in my face until I give in. This mini-drama plays on repeat for years: I say “no” to some boring game my brother wants to play, he uses physical threats to make me comply.
“You need to stand up for yourself more,” my mother tells me, doing nothing to intervene as my brother assaults me. The thing is, I do fight back. Every time. He’s just stronger. Years later, my mother will ask why I’m so sad all the time.
I’m washing the dishes. I think I’m doing just fine, but my sister disagrees. “Why are you so delicate with everything?” she asks, annoyed. “Scrub harder.”
In my family, femininity is weakness. Weakness cannot be tolerated. Everyone is battle-hardened by a war they don’t know they’re fighting, against an enemy within their own ranks. None of us can win against our father, though, so instead we fight each other.
I’m the lowest-ranking soldier, and while three of my siblings will join the military for real, it is not in my blood to fight. I am this family’s cannon fodder.
My brother tells me, “You get bullied because of how you walk.” He kicks at my leg. “Your stance is too narrow. You need to separate your feet more. Look bigger.”
Today I would describe his advice as blaming the victim. At thirteen, I am trained to take a beating and say “thank you.”
I do as he says. When standing, I keep my feet further apart. I push out my shoulders. I’m already one of the tallest people in class, but I try to make myself look even larger. This strategy seems to work, but at a cost. None of this posturing feels natural. I do not want to prepare for battle. I want the war to end. My brother continues to assault me any time I disagree with him.
I come out to my family as a girl. Notice that wording: I do not come out as “transgender.” I have had my own truth beaten out of me so many times that I refuse to give a single inch. “Transgender” is what other people see. It’s the view from the outside looking in. From the inside, looking out, I have always been a girl.
My family does not welcome this news, so I move out. My possessions fit into a single car. They include a garbage bag full of clothes, several cardboard boxes full of necessities, and an honest-to-god ammo crate, in which I keep mementos.
I make new friends. I figure out that my family’s war zone was a bubble, and that there is a world outside that bubble where people respect each other. Where feelings are a good thing. Where I’m allowed to be vulnerable. Feminine, even.
At this point, however, I have spent more than 21 years at war. Against my wishes, I am a trained soldier. I try to bring back that vulnerable girl I knew in childhood. Year after year, I fail. I still feel hardened. I know that girl is in me, but I can’t reach her.
I date someone new. She does weird things I’m not used to, like tell me I’m “cute” and “pretty.” Sometimes, when we’re alone together, that little girl reaches the surface and says “hi.” My girlfriend loves when she shows up. We talk and joke and act silly together.
Now I feel more real when my girlfriend is around than when I’m by myself. I realize my life is full of negativity and emptiness. The war is over, but that’s not the same thing as being at peace. As an adult, I’m either punished for being female in a sexist society, or I am ignored, just another face in the crowd. Strangers don’t encourage me to show my vulnerable side. My friends, while supportive, don’t cheer me on when that little girl comes out. Friends are just there. They’re neutral.
When you’ve been abused your entire life for being a girl, lack of abuse isn’t enough. You need explicit encouragement. You have to counter every time your parents didn’t say “Good girl!” When you’re broken into pieces, you need loud, enthusiastic cheers for every little piece that you reattach.
Maybe the next step is to tell my friends about this? That requires being even more vulnerable. Maybe I need to build up some strength first. But I think this is the start of something beautiful.