By J Brooke
Special Issue Nonfiction Winner
I entered the world a textbook case. My earliest thoughts were, I am a boy. I behaved traditionally male in everyway, eschewing girl’s toys, books, games, clothing, monikers. At four, I asked my parents for “sex change surgery.”
My father let me shave with him. Spraying a pyramid of shaving cream into my hand, he’d watch me spread it overthe bottom half of my face, while he simultaneously applied his own white coating. I mimicked his razor moveswith a silver teaspoon. Removing broad stripes of cream in tandem, rinsing our shavers sporadically in faucetwater. Afterwards we slapped on aftershave, admiring our fresh reflections. Before exiting the bathroom, wearingonly bath towels around our waists, we boxed. Deflecting slow-motion blows, blocking with my forearms, ducking and weaving, imagining myself Joe Frazier; I’d throw a jab, a cross, and end with an upper cut, to which he widened his eyes and shook his head back and forth, feigning momentary disorientation so I could exit the bathroom “The New Champion of the World!”
When I was six, my father removed my bike’s training wheels, and we rode loops around Central Park. I took offmy shirt, stuffing it into the back pocket of my jeans, riding topless like the cool Latino delivery boys around my neighborhood.
My mother detested and fought my male behavior, ambushing me with lipstick, refusing to call me “J” as Irepeatedly requested, and not letting me play sports. My friends at school were boys and I wasn’t allowed to have them over or go to their houses to play. My mother’s only concession was allowing me my brother’s hand-me-down khakis and turtlenecks. But only worn at home. I was permitted boys’ pajamas, but only after my nannydouble-stitch closed the crotch. I wasn’t allowed to go to the barber for haircuts, though I begged hard.
By ten, still yearning to embody the male I knew I was, menstruation and breast development rendered my cause increasingly futile. I hid tampons in the fingers of my baseball mitt to sneak unnoticed into to the girls’ bathroom.When we had to choose partners in science lab, I always chose a male classmate. At lunch, I sat with the same boys I’d play “kill the carrier” with during recess. I didn’t dislike girls, but except with a tomboy named Dany I met in summer camp, I couldn’t converse with them; I watched groups of girls huddle, touching each other’s hair and clothing, like I was studying a mysterious other species. When I was forced into all-girl situations like an occasional sleepover my mother made me attend, I always ended-up getting whispered about. I refused a bra,instead buying patterned Gap button-down shirts with two breast pockets in a large enough size to hang loose atop thick Fruit of the Loom t-shirts. At 15, I relented to all-white bras without frill or adornment. I imagined them a chest protector, like the New York Jets wore beneath Jerseys.
At 16, resembling Brooke Shields, not Brooks Robinson, I abandoned the battle. Ceasing outward insistence that Iwas male, I wore my long hair loose, ordered salads not sandwiches, accepted dates with boys. Popular girls still didn’t like or include me, but I found a small tribe of self-selecting outcasts who never commented on my wardrobe and wanted to hear my poetry. Yet, alone or with others, I buried my gender complication, the way I jammed my clenched fists within the pockets of a red plaid hunting jacket my father gave me when he moved out. I loved that jacket, and a sharp ache that would linger for months in my chest resulted from its sudden disappearance. I knew my mother had thrown it away.
I was drawn towards Bryn Mawr College, a devoutly female institution. Bryn Mawr’s President was a masculine confident woman with a female spouse. Entire dorms were “queer only.” I was delighted when invited to join the women’s rugby team. Yet I dated only men.
Once graduated, I pursued a career in advertising, proving myself with brands like Miller Beer, Seiko watches,British Airways and Henckels Knives, before landing on athletic brands like Footlocker, Nike, Reebok. My passion for Heisman prospects and Knicks draft hopefuls imbued a jockish nonchalance. Meeting well-known athletes through my work, I traded trivia with Don Mattingly and Jerry Rice, talked inside game with Bill Walton and Wayne Gretzky. I drank after hours single-malt scotch with Wilt Chamberlain. Michael Jordan and I twice smoked cigars together.
Once, on a vacation in the Caribbean, I was in a long line awaiting boarding a packed connector flight from Antigua to St. Lucia. An older female, native to the island, abandoned her post at a stand selling guavas and papayas and with purpose approached me. Waving a thick extended finger in my face she exclaimed:
“You more A MON than A wo-MON.”
I stood frozen, not replying. She repeated:
“You more A MON than A wo-MON.”
Everyone on line turned to stare at this confrontation. I wasn’t embarrassed—if anything I was pleased.
During my 20s, I only wore men’s cologne. I only wore men’s shoes. My cash and two credit cards lived in a money clip in my pocket. I only drank beer, and I only drank it from the bottle. My closest friends remained men.When I walked down the aisle for the first time at age 29 to marry one of them, I wore a baseball cap everyone could see and plaid flannel boxer shorts no one could. My husband was my avatar of sorts; my mind’s eye imbedded within his J Press-clad, 6’3”, 240 lbs. whenever we together entered a room. He didn’t comment when I wore his cufflinks. He didn’t complain that I always took the wheel and he rode shotgun.
At 33, I gave birth to my son. At 34, my husband and I divorced. I had never debated my sexuality, always assuming I was straight because I never fantasized about women, and sex with men was without issue. One night,shortly after divorcing, on a multi-beer infused whim, I kissed a woman. The bar I was in was crowded and the music pumped loud, yet during the kiss all external volume muted beneath a cacophony of a thousand panes of glass shattering. The sound was violent; broken shards crashing hard, yet the effect was calming, I felt like I was swimming in moonlight through cool clear water. This was the answer, I thought to myself; I was gay! It explained my cross-gender dressing, my out-of-sync-ness with straight females, and my in-sync-ness with men. I transitioned to dating women after that kiss and never looked back. I threw out, gave away, or burned any remaining dresses or skirts in my closet. I packed away the pearls my grandfather had given me. I shopped unabashedly in men’s departments; donning an everyday uniform of khakis with oxford shirts, and a shawl-collared tux I had fitted to me for formal events. I created close friendships with women. Becoming an “out” gay woman felt like a second chance. It felt like a first breath.
At 40, I fell in love with Beatrice, the woman I would eventually marry. I was comfortable in our life together; we were two lesbians heading a blended family of five kids. Everyone in our small town knew us. We held hands and kissed publicly without pause or hesitation. I was always aware that Beatrice and I were different kinds of lesbians from each other though. She liked dresses. She wore earrings and occasional makeup. Her perfume was feminine. I rarely pondered how differently we approached being gay, because our frenetic family life, and working hard to support it financially, didn’t leave a lot of time for internal reflection.
Somewhere in my mid-40’s, I bought a rundown motel a mile from our house and turned it into a steady business.The pay was less than my advertising career, but more predictable. A fringe benefit was the early mornings manning the front desk. The quiet between guest inquiries yielded time to read; I adored waking up at 6 a.m.knowing I’d soon coffee with Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Oliver Sacks, Zadie Smith. But an author with far less literary pedigree ended up rocking my world. Reading Chas Bono’s book Transition, landed me in a walking coma— I functioned, at home and work, but I wasn’t mentally present. Instead, triggered by the author’s near-exact memories and experiences to my own, (with the notable difference of my parents not being Sonny and Cher) I found myself transported back to my childhood and coming-of-age. Chas always felt male, his father catered to it, calling him “Fred” and roughhousing with him. His mother wasn’t accepting, and Chas suffered years of confusion and alienation before finding some peace and connection coming out as a lesbian. Born a boy in a female body, Chas eventually realized he needed to transition into a man. With such similar early years, I wondered, for the first time, if I’d denied myself my true gender. And, if I had, now what was I supposed to do about it?
Current self-examination highlighted flannel shirts and graphic t’s, largely clothing my son outgrew, though peppered with Levi’s and khakis and blazers I bought in men’s departments. I still wore men’s cologne. I never looked in the mirror much, but realized whenever I did, I never ever looked at my chest. I’d psychologically detached from my breasts years before, because they were never a part of who I really was; an un-requested appendage I learned to live with by ignoring, as one might a strange birthmark or speech abnormality.
Exploring with a therapist whether I still wanted to be the male I’d wanted to be back in my teens, I discovered that while I would have blinked my breasts away at any point in my life, my aversion to surgery would keep me from an elective double mastectomy. As for facial hair, I’d outgrown my desire for it along with my silver spoon shaving years. Learning how testosterone alters the brain, I didn’t want that either…liking the wiring of my female-male brain, however it’s been fused and formed over the years. And, while I’d once perfected peeing while standing, I didn’t wish a penis appended to my body. I was born male and yet no longer felt wholly male; I had morphed into something other.
“Do you consider me male or female?” I asked Beatrice. Without hesitation she responded: “I’ve always thought you’re a hybrid.”
Until I was 50, I rested with this conclusion. Certain I was born male, had I grown up in more progressive times and a more progressive family, I could have been permitted to cut my hair, wear boy’s clothing, change my name, adopt appropriate gender pronouns, perhaps go on hormone blockers. But during years of forced adaptation, I shifted. I cannot explain it any better than my wife did: I became a hybrid. Beginning as a boy and yearning with all my heart to be treated as one; but never growing into an adult male.
I came out, to close friends, about being born male, and therefore identifying as trans, but I didn’t share this widely. Afterall, the concept that one could possibly outgrow wanting gender-reassignment could do far greater harm than good.
Shortly after I turned 51, a New York Times Magazine cover story was published called, “When Women Become Men at Wellesley.” While I’d encountered individuals along the gender spectrum, I didn’t really understand it before reading about Timothy, a “transmasculine” or “masculine-of-center genderqueer” student. Further research unveiled additional terms like “non-binary” and “genderfluid” that emerged while I wasn’t looking. These newer gradations described me. I existed.
I was 42 when Beatrice and I married and blended our two families. I had my son, and she had three daughters and a son. We beat back the bedlam constantly threatening the peace we pursued by juggling everyone’s needs as calmly as possible– so concerned with our kids feeling “normal” in a world not familiar with gay moms, we let one of the children’s gender variance evade our attention. We had long thought our middle girl, Kaden, was gay, and consciously provided time and space for her to come out neither feeling led or overshadowed by our sexuality. I enjoyed an easy simpatico with Kaden, tossing a football around, shopping in the boy’s department.
Then, in his 20’s, Kaden became a trans man. Originally fluctuating in consideration of his own gender, we’dcompare how we each saw ourselves using vernacular we studied and adopted. For a while, Kaden and I each identified along a “gender fluid non-binary spectrum” – meaning some instances we felt more male and some instances more female. As months past, while I never shifted my comfort in my hybrid self, Kaden desired a deeper dive into his manliness. Beatrice and I individually researched the side effects of Testosterone, choosing not to torture ourselves discussing our findings of myriad health risks. We knew Kaden wasn’t sleeping. For weeks we heard him rearranging the furniture in his room late at night. He had done this since he was little, whenever wrestling with a problem, wearing deep grooves into the pine planks of his floor dragging his dresser, night stand, and bed from one wall of the room to another, and then another, and then back. When Kaden finally asked me one morning what I thought about him trying Testosterone, I said, “Do it.”
The chemical portion of Kaden’s transition first frustrated and then tortured: his changes were too gradual, his dosage needed constant tweaking. How could Kaden’s identity, so long masked, now be held captive by a series of imperfect injections? Then Kaden elected to have top surgery (double mastectomy with gender-dictated re-construction.) I struggled with the inherent danger, but recognized that while classified as “elective”, to Kaden, surgery felt mandatory. Beatrice and I researched every aspect of the process, at first landing at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NYC, which had just opened a new multi-million-dollar wing devoted to “Gender Confirmation.” When Kaden went in for the initial exam, Beatrice and I stayed in the waiting room.
While waiting, Beatrice subdued her anxiety within an iPad search for vegan restaurants, and I scanned the room, looking but not staring, at all the patients. There were female-to-male people early in their process, nurturing thin mustaches and spotty hints of would-be beards, as well as other trans men who simply looked like men. There were male-to-female patients at various stages of transition, some beating back facial and body hair, one appeared a new navigator of high heels. If any of these patients looked up from their smartphones, how would they assess me? Merely a tall woman wearing no makeup, masculine clothing, and men’s size 10.5 Nikes? Or could these people, my birth-tribe, perceive me more acutely? Looking not exactly like any of them, I was, of course, entirely one of them.
About the author
Published poet and essayist, J Brooke, is the previous Nonfiction Editor and current Alumni Mentor of the Stonecoast Review. Eir MFA degree in CreativeWriting is from University of Southern Maine. Publications include Harvard Review, TSR-The Southampton Review, The East Hampton Star, RFDMagazine, Hartskill Review, Rubbertop Review, Mom Egg Review. Most recently e had a fiction essay among the top seven finalists for the NorthAmerican Review’s 2020 Kurt Vonnegut Prize, and the opening to one of eir nonfiction essays was a selected finalist for Sunspot Literature’s InceptionContest. Brooke’s film work includes The Bed, (winner of Cinewomen’s Best Short Documentary and Brooklyn Film Festival’s Silver Award), and twofeatures (co-created with partner in film and life, Beatrice Alda) Legs: A Big Issue in a Small Town, and Out Late — distributed by Amazon and First RunFeatures, respectively. A graduate of Bryn Mawr College, e majored in creative writing at Haverford College. Brooke’s misspent youth was spent in advertising