This is another one about the intersection of being autistic and transgender. Content alert: talks of periods, bras, and such (if that freaks you out, as it does for me occasionally).
I have described the painful way in which I lived through the switch from (genderless) “child” to “woman” here, after having read a few similar accounts by autistic women and female-bodied persons and having some sort of, “heck – this is exactly it” moment.
Because this didn’t happen for me in trans support groups.
My trans journey probably started a few years before I got my period, around age 12 – I remember wanting boy’s clothes (specifically striped polo shirts I’d seen on some boys) and a short haircut. When I got both (well, a pageboy cut is what my parents gave me), a classmate made fun of me saying I look like Aaron Carter (some young boy singing pop music at the time). Of course I didn’t really follow that pop-reference; nevertheless, I thought it’s normal and right that now I’m being seen as looking similar to that boy and took the tease as a neutral statement of fact that I enjoyed.
A year or two later, said puberty disaster happened – to be precise, at menarche.
By that time, I was wearing boy clothes (see that in pictures); checkered shorts of the type village boys wear in Poland, and plain, one-colour (dark blue or green) T-shirts. Again, I wasn’t conscious of wanting to be a boy or whatever; that was just what I felt like wearing. I don’t remember questioning it or having dilemmas (or any deeper thoughts, actually) about it.
Another funny thing is that even though I knew all the facts of biology (from an age so young that I can’t even recall being told, about periods, sex, etc.), it was also an obvious truth for me that I wouldn’t get a period. Ever. I didn’t really think about that either, even though I’d read that all girls get periods. But somehow I assumed I wouldn’t.
Again, there was not much thought to this, it just seemed natural or logical.
So when my period came, I was devastated (my mum actually remembers me as being infuriated; interesting contrast). Bewildered. Betrayed – and somehow shocked into some totally unreal reality.
As I describe in that other article, I believe that had grave negative consequences for my mental health not much later.
Another bad memory is related to breast growth. I remember sleeping on my belly for them not go grow, still they did (and in abundance just to spite me). So my solution was to ignore them and pretend they aren’t there, and just wear the same boy clothes.
Since my parents couldn’t tolerate this, they finally took me on a forced bra-shopping trip, which was the horror trip for me. I finally bought something that was more a tight top than a bra.
I later wore bras, but hated them passionately – not just cause I found them uncomfortable, but because in my psyche they had some deeply ingrained meaning of complete humiliation, failure, violation, perhaps inferiority (yes, my household an culture is sexist – tho I’d say there are few which aren’t on a subtle level, in the West, too – and I had probably internalised that).
This hate didn’t stop, and at a point in my 20s I finally researched breast health, read some study saying longer hours of wearing bras are correlated with higher breast cancer risk anyways, so I said screw it and said goodbye to them, no matter what anybody thinks. I just wear guy’s shirts that have pockets in requisite locations. And I do feel a sense of injustice that I have to do that – why are muslim headscarves “unfair”, but women having to cover their upper body in Western countries – no matter how hot it gets, or whether you need some sun on your skin – supposedly is not?
I know many people find this line of thinking crazy or disgusting, but for me – it’s just logical; given also that many indigenous and some rural East Asian cultures somehow deal with female upper bodies. Especially in summer.
But then, it’s hard to tell whether this strong feeling that this is how it should be comes from my being an aspie (practical), trans (I don’t intuitively feel that my upper body should be perceived in a sexual way), a (type of) feminist, or all of these. It just seems logical.
Anyways, this wasn’t the point of this post.
Suffice it to say, as a young teen I felt extreme misery about all of this. It kept bothering me, and bothering me. Until at a point, I decided to tell my mother.
From what I remember, I said something like “you know what, I’d actually prefer to be a boy”.
My mother’s response was along the lines of a casual “sure, that’s natural, they have it easier”.
That was the end of the dialogue.
And for the next 10-15 years, yes, I believed that all women feel like this.
So I swallowed it and I didn’t mention the issue to anyone else, until I was 26.
Although all this time I couldn’t stop wondering, when looking at feminine girls and women, how on earth do they put up with this? They must have amazing, crazy willpower, or some superpower, because I can’t make myself be, look, act like this without basically wanting to annihilate myself.
I later dated women, and realised, to my astonishment, that not all women feel like this. About their bodies. Not even lesbians. In fact, I didn’t meet a single one that did.
Two notes on potential aspie factors that strike me now:
- I took my mother’s statement completely literally and never questioned it. Which turned my world upside down for the next 10-15 years until I realised … well, that my understanding of it had been wrong. I also understated my issue, presumably – I didn’t realise that my phrasing didn’t make it clear how big the problem was. And I didn’t realise she didn’t understand; and didn’t go back to correct her. I just shut up … and down. I do wonder if non-aspie trans kids deal differently with this?
- It took me 10-15 years to gradually realise not all women are gender dysphoric because I never talked to women about intimate stuff, until I started having them as sexual partners. I didn’t have “girlfriends” in the sense of close female friends that I’d share feelings with, or whatever girlfriends do (to be honest, the slightest clue I do not have even at 33 – in childhood I had a best friend who was a girl, but we just roamed in the forest, did handstands on the lawn, played hide and seek or couch pillow wars with our little brothers, built houses from cardboard or did creative stuff; when girls lost interest in that, I lost their friendships – and any activity partners, in fact. Cause I got interested in stuff like philosophy of religion.). I wonder, would a non-autistic person live for 10-15 years not realising not all people of their sex have gender dysphoria?
I’m not sure, actually if anyone has comments, I’d really be curious to know.
Suffice it to say though, assuming that all females have gender dysphoria based on that one casual statement my mum made completely messed up my interpretation of social and psychological reality. For years on end.
So not all women are gender dysphoric!?
A kind of breakthrough came actually when I was dating an older queer man, and casually mentioned something gender dysphoric to him. He was taken aback, puzzled, and asked me more. So I told him. I didn’t think it was unusual. He said it totally was, having had quite the number of girlfriends, apparently – saying he had never heard something like this; that they had a completely different relationships to their bodies.
We then got into a lot of conversations, the culmination of which was that I started researching trans as a subject matter.
Before that, I thought “trans” meant guys in dresses, yes.
Or that it meant kids who insist they are the other sex from age 2 and get surgeries at 18.
So the latter certainly occurs. But it didn’t occur in my case. (Gender was not something on my mind before I was perhaps 12 – perhaps because no one pushed gender norms on me before then.)
Still, the question kept bugging me.
Enter: trans support groups
Years passed, and finally, after having moved to Jerusalem, then to Warsaw, I bumped into a girlfriend who was a psychotherapist. She encouraged me to explore the trans thing, and I finally found the courage to go to a support group.
Hoping to be supported, or to be understood.
But that didn’t really happen. I felt alien there, too.
I felt I couldn’t really identify with those “I knew I was a boy since I was 4” narratives, and – to be honest – I felt a bit unmasculine, too (although much less than I felt unfeminine). I only knew I wasn’t a woman (or sunk into self-loathing and self-destructiveness every time something or someone reminded me of that; bras and periods included), so what was the other option?
The gentle trans guy
I never quite got it.
Why I didn’t fit in there.
Why I couldn’t really identify with those other stories, on some kind of gut, emotional level. Why I felt I was still different. Although yes, it was an initial relief to have a circle of people who regarded me as a guy, used male pronouns, and I could show up dressed up in fancy buttoned shirts and would receive compliments, not odd stares of “what the heck is that?” (like from people in the street, who often weren’t sure how to address me – I tended and still tend to look like a teenage boy and get addressed as “Sir” or “ey, you, young fella” occasionally).
But nothing was so clear.
And no, I didn’t crave having a beard. (In fact, not having to shave daily is the one advantage I see in having a female body :D) I wasn’t obsessed about my genitals – didn’t really care all my life so long as no period was present; although admittedly, yes, I did start to care / have thoughts when I started having women as sexual partners, and that added to my confusion and pain.
I didn’t care for “guy things”, either. Well, apart from stuff like science and philosophy, but are these guy things? I liked art, music, and gentleness.
But not soccer, cars and competition – or whatever it is guys are supposed to be into (sorry; the only guys I’ve been reasonably close to were queer and/or eccentric and individualistic like me).
I wasn’t stereotypically masculine (though I tried for a while, which probably was fun to watch given both my frame and my personality), and am not.
Treading no man’s land
Many years fast forward, I bumped into a friend who hinted to me I may have Asperger’s, too (her having just received a diagnosis and studied all about it), and even though she accepted my male persona, she informed me that it’s known that females on the autism spectrum get feelings similar to mine, not uncommonly.
And I did see that in accounts written by autistic women.
However, in the accounts I read, they all finally get over it.
I’m 33 and haven’t – although I’ve done many things which helped me diminish the gender dysphoria and cope with it better (I was considering transitioning at a point, but choose not to due to other aspects of my personality, beliefs and circumstances).
Some of these are probably good to list, perhaps for others’ reference – funny enough, one aspect that helped was actually going on a specific autism diet (casein and gluten free) for another reason (not autism). It resolved hormonal imbalances I didn’t know I had and made me more comfortable in my body simply physically. There were many other things.
Still, having been pulled back into looking at autism, I wonder whether my personal gender dysphoria is the side product of being a (mentally genderless) aspie in a female body – or if the fact that I’ve learnt all this and it persists, although in a less agonising fashion, means there’s more behind it.
I’m still looking for a way of being ok in this body as it is, despite all. But it does dig up wells of pain to be reminded of it, especially of the way other people perceive it (after I’ve done so much mental gymnastics to see it in a way I can live with).
Reincarnation and the crazy shaman
One thing I sometimes still think of, which I did already in childhood, perhaps, is that maybe this female body is something I’ve wished for because – of something. I make up various stories to make myself feel better, as I believe one often does in spirituality. Or therapy. I build a plot around it that I can live with.
Because I do feel physical change may do much more harm than good in my case, but still having made this decision doesn’t mean that I can now just deal with it. Not without putting all my creativity and wits into creating a self-understanding that seems true.
And presumably won’t be understood by many others.