For one summer of my childhood I witnessed, for the first time, a heavy case of gender non-conformity. Mary-Anne came to my neighbourhood, she became my friend and that ended up being a terrific summer. Mary-Anne wasn’t gender non-conforming but her cousin who she brought with her a few times was; Russell. In this chapter I want to talk about the experiences I had that summer with Mary-Anne and Russell.
I was about 11 at the time, Mary-Anne was a year older than me and Russell was her age or a bit older, I believe. Mary-Anne and I had spent almost everyday together playing outside, we got along wonderfully and I remember being so happy to have a new friend to spend time with. One day I saw her walking towards my house with a boy, she introduced us and immediately I could tell that he was ‘different’. I remember feeling accepting, or even indifferent, there were no questions in my mind. He was Mary-Anne’s cousin and it was cool that our number had grown by one. There had been at my school two effeminate brothers, Russell was similar to them so there wasn’t even any surprise that a boy might not be boy-ish.
It was shortly after that introduction that we were sitting around and talking when Russell’s gender became the topic of conversation. I’m not sure who started it; Russell or Mary-Anne but I do remember not being that interested. Russell had explained that he thought he might want to be a girl when he’s older and that he liked girls’ things and that was that, really, in my mind. Still no questions, it seemed fine. A boy should be allowed to dress and behave in a feminine way, that’s a given, surely.
In the coming visits that Russell made to the neighbourhood he became more inquisitive about my ‘girly’ possessions. Mary-Anne was staying with family so she didn’t have much with her. Russell used to ask me to bring items out of my room so that he could play with them outside. We sat on my doorstep sometimes and he would ask me about make-up and clothes, not that I had much of the former being so young. I didn’t mind the questions and the borrowing. I felt sorry for Russell that he didn’t have these items for himself, he seemed to long for them so badly. One time really stands out in my memory though, a time where I don’t think I was that happy with it all, the time I had to give over my earrings.
I had stepped out of my house wearing my big hoopy earrings. I had got them recently against my mum’s pleas – at that age I was starting to win the battles of want on shopping trips. I thought I looked great. Russell enquired about the earrings, he really liked them. He wanted to try them on. I explained that you’re not supposed to share earrings but the begging got more and more incessant. In the end I gave in, took them out of my ears and handed them over. Russell was really happy and put one of them in his ear, as he only had on piercing – common for boys at the time. I remember eventually Mary-Anne putting the other one on and we all laughed and joked about them. But, I also remember in the back of my mind wanting them back though feeling too guilty to ask. How could I take them back from the boy who isn’t allowed any of the trinkets he wants. He asked if he could keep them. I said yes.
I felt so conflicted and I still feel forlorn at that interaction. It was nice to share but is it nice to expect somebody to share? I no longer wanted to have my possessions poked, prodded and observed as if by an extra-terrestrial visiting a supermarket for the first time. I wanted to keep my links to femininity for myself, especially the ones that I hadn’t yet explored. I think I know now why I felt that way. Because, no girls went through my stuff like that. We would take things to each others’ houses and share. But Kim from across the way would never rifle through my things or demand I bring more things outside. I had already learnt in my short life that tacit rules between females existed and Russell, although I accepted he was a girl inside, did not seem to understand this. He did not fit. Russell’s boundary crossing had upset me and had felt jarring.
Russell visited a few more times, talking often about how he would probably get surgery when he was 18. I didn’t really look forward to him accompanying us after the earrings but I didn’t feel any dislike or malice towards him. I still hoped that he would get to be the girl he wanted to be when he grew up. I hoped he would one day get to play with all the things I took for granted. After that summer I never saw Russell again. Having lost touch with Mary-Anne I don’t know if he ever fulfilled his dreams. Past me hopes he did, present me hopes that he became comfortable in his own skin and sexuality without the need for drastic measures.