all I ever wanted was a girls' world
Nothing speaks louder of society’s fascination with gender diversity than our recent enthralment with Caitlyn Jenner and Laverne Cox, with pictures of Eddie Redmayne filming The Danish Girl in a dress or even Kristen Stewart holding hands with a girl...
Since birth, I have never identified with masculinity and I have consistently and outwardly rejected its culture; its expectations. As a child I was only interested in dresses, My Little Pony, dolls. My teddy bear is a girl named Velvet after the Elizabeth Taylor movie, National Velvet, in which (as far as I can remember) her character has to cut off her hair and pretend to be a boy in order to compete in a horserace. Watching young Elizabeth cutting of her beautiful, long, shiny, black hair in that film traumatised me, and left an indelible footprint on my life to come. I must have been two or three when I watched that film. I was traumatised not only because I couldn't bear to see that long hair, which I envied and coveted so much, cut off - mutilated to be masculinised - but also because I understood for the first time that the world was not equal; that girls and boys do not enjoy the same privileges.
From my first footsteps into primary school, where, on the first morning, I excitedly dove immediately into the dressing-up box in the corner of the room and put on a dusty pink tutu and some red patent 70s heels, I was made to know that I was different. My teacher called me The Sugar Plum Fairy, and my classmates disparagingly called me poof and gay and queer, a situation which continued relentlessly until I left school. It was more than obvious to me, and to all those around me, that I was not like the other boys, or girls. Despite several failed attempts made by my school to normalise me - i.e. masculinise me by banning me from playing with my friends, the girls, at playtime, by trying to make me play with the boys instead, I still didn't fit in. Introverted, inside of my own imagination, I was safe, and that was where I stayed, twirling around on tiptoes with my coat on my head, in imitation of the long hair I always wanted, talking in a shrill falsetto.
I grew up in an era and society that taught me little more than its hatred for me and to hate myself. In turn, I hated it back. Christmases and birthdays brought me gifts bought for a boy - Star Wars figures, remote-controlled cars, Scalextric - which I abandoned in favour of the presents given to my sister: Barbie Doll houses, Jem and the Holograms and their glittering tights and coloured hair were what interested me. Relatives and adults around us snorted that I should have been the girl and my sister the boy. I have since been told that I should have been a girl, and as a child, in my naivety, I would have defiantly agreed with them. It's something I have questioned in myself all my life. I mean, surely I was supposed to be a girl—all I was interested in was dresses, my favourite colour was pink, I longed to wear make-up and jewellery, and my deepest desire was to be told the highest accolade a girl can achieve in our society: to be told I was pretty.
High school intensified and spotlighted my differences to those around me. As the bullying by my peers and my teachers worsened and increased, my hatred for their society and for masculinity solidified. I was lucky to be hardened by their somewhat aggressive and open disdain for me. I gained strength in my alienation from them. I became sure of myself and assured that the culture I was surrounded by was entirely comprised of antiquated false ideas. As I entered my teens, I discovered the crooked feminism that is riot grrrl and I began to question what it means to be a girl; the notions of femininity. I realised that the things our culture attributes to femininity - lace, dresses, frills, make-up, high heels etc. - are merely genderless objects, and that behaviours and interests are merely behaviours and interests made 'feminine' by cultural gaze.
Feminism taught me that intellect and power was not the sole domain of masculinity—or maleness. I realised we do not need to cut our hair to win the race. If I want to wear a dress I can wear that dress; I don't need to be a girl to do it. The dress is not feminine—it's a dress. These shoes are not girls' shoes—they are my shoes. I knew that the culture around me was wrong, its perceptions needed to be changed, not me nor my physical gender. I realised I don't need to alter or limit myself, my physicality, or my behaviours to fit in. The world has changed since I grew up in the 80s and 90s. Back then, there were few representations of true otherness in popular culture, and certainly not in my own immediate environment. We had Boy George and that was about it. I remember the outrage and controversy of Anna Friel's 'lesbian kiss' on Brookside in the late 90s—at least nowadays a homosexual storyline on mainstream television isn't deemed so shocking.
Over the last few years there has been a lot of spotlight upon issues surrounding feminism, gender, and transgender in the media, at the forefront of which is Caitlyn Jenner's incredibly brave and extremely public transition, which is giving a face and voice to transgender people and starting important cultural discussions about gender diversity. It's reassuring to me to see how far we've come in the West, and to see how publicly well-received Jenner's transition has been. But I fear we may be lulled into believing a false sense of cultural enlightenment. I am lucky to live in London, one of the most liberal and culturally diverse pockets of the world, but where I personally still experience harassment for my appearance. In the rest of the world people of otherness are not as lucky.
I am not politically correct. I have always thought of myself as a neither-nor, not woman, certainly not man, nor agender. I realise that physically I am male, and I'm comfortable with that, even if the world around me still isn't. Progress is being made - no doubt about it - but it's only the beginning. There is a long way to go before people of otherness are truly accepted, culturally. The world - and not just the West - needs to learn and accept the fact that there is a myriad of alternatives beyond male and female born heterosexuality. Human beings are way more complex than that. It's human to be curious and confused, even about yourself and others and about what you don't understand. But is it human to be tolerant?
Text Edward Meadham