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“Am I Handsome?”: My Earliest Memory of Gender Dysphoria

“Am I Handsome?”: My Earliest Memory of Gender Dysphoria

Mimi Nadia Chenyao | Fake and Basic

“But some trans children will not truly, not for a long time, be able to maintain a crystal clear fix on what it is that is troubling them about the way that they are presented to the world … It will be like a mental gnawing sensation or an itch or a throb that is set off every time gender is specifically mentioned.”

– Caspar J. Baldwin, Not Just A Tomboy

Update: I changed my name from “Mimi” to “Marty” and started using he/him pronouns in July 2019. This article keeps the original “Mimi” and “she/her” self-references in order to maintain a sense of timeline.

“Mama, am I handsome?”

I’m standing in the bathroom, admiring my reflection in the mirror on the wall. My hair is shiny and falls just above my chin, my eyes are bright, and I’m wearing a red velvet tracksuit that makes me feel just like Po, the red Teletubby. She’s not my favorite of the four, but she has an aura of energy and intelligence about her that I don’t mind borrowing.

I am four years old.

“What?” My mother, who has been washing her hands, comes to stand behind me. From my vantage point, she’s so tall that I can’t see her face in the mirror.

“Am I handsome?” I repeat.

“Handsome” is a new word that I’ve learned only a few hours ago. My friend Nate had worn a new shirt to school that day, and the teacher had called him a “handsome young man.” The compliment made my friend light up. I’d asked him what it meant — English was my second language, and I’d only started speaking it a year ago — and he’d told me, with a huge grin on his face, that it meant that he looked good.

“Ac-tually, way better than good,” he’d drawled out, looking at me seriously. “Like, really really good.”

I proceeded to ask the teacher if she thought I was as handsome as Nate, but she either hadn’t heard me or had purposefully ignored the question.

Now, I want my mother to assure me that I, too, look way better than good.

To my surprise, my mother laughs and says no. “You can’t be handsome,” she gently explains. “You’re beautiful.”

I don’t know why, but her words sting. Even though I know for a fact that “beautiful” is also a compliment, that it also means that I look “way better than good”, there’s something about the way she says it that makes my throat tighten.

“Why can’t I be handsome?” I press.

“That’s a word that is only used for boys,” she explains. “And you’re not a boy. Boys are handsome, girls are beautiful.” [1]

Suddenly, the room feels too tight, and I feel like I can’t quite breathe properly. I want to say something, but my throat seems to be closed up. My vision starts to blur from tears that are rapidly forming behind my eyes.

I’m determined not to cry, because then it would be obvious that something is wrong, and I still don’t know why I’m having such a strong reaction to such an innocent remark.

It’s not even the fact that I can’t be handsome that bothers me; it’s something else.

I give my now-blurry reflection in the mirror another glance, force myself to nod, and speed-walk out of the bathroom as quickly as possible before the tears start to fall. I make a beeline for my room, where I sit on my bed in silence and stare at the wall until it’s time for dinner.

You’re not a boy.

I think about this statement as I sit, turning it over and over in my head as I try to figure out why it bothers me so. I know, intellectually, that I’m a girl — I don’t cut my hair as short as my dad’s, and when it’s warm out, I wear my favorite dress with the daisies on it to the park. I also know that I’m a girl because the teachers at school don’t let me use the boys’ bathroom and yelled at me the one time I tried to go in there.

Beyond that … what else keeps me from being a boy? Grown-ups are always going on about how there are differences between girls and boys, but I don’t see any differences between me and my friends, who all happen to be boys, except for what we’re allowed to wear, which I also think is stupid. I already hate playing with dolls and have no desire to be a princess when I grow up, which makes me a bit of an outcast among the girls in my class.

I can’t be handsome because I’m not a boy. And I’m not a boy because …

I briefly wonder if I can turn into a boy by cutting my hair off, but I don’t think that will really solve the problem. For the millionth time, I wish that my sister were actually my brother so I could find out once and for all why I have to be a girl. [2] As much as I love my shiny hair and the summer dress with the daisies on it, in that moment, I vow that I’ll give them up if it means that I don’t have to be a girl.

Sadly — and I somehow know this — that won’t work, either.

I know that boys aren’t supposed to be crybabies, so I squeeze my eyes shut and force out the last of the tears. I know that if I bring this up at dinner, my mother will be confused about why I’m upset. There are two things I vehemently dislike about myself now, and they are my legal English name [3] and the fact that I somehow have to be stuck being something that I’m not sure I like. I didn’t get to choose either of those things, and it makes me feel completely powerless in a way that’s unfamiliar and scary.

You’re not a boy, my mother had said, with that grown-up air of finality.

I am not a boy, I say to myself now, in my head.

I am. Not. A. Boy.

I let this casual sentence sink in, and then I push it deep down until I can be reasonably sure that I won’t cry any more. As if on cue, my mother calls that it’s time for dinner. I roughly swipe at my eyes with the sleeve of the red tracksuit and then head out of the room, shutting the entire incident out of my mind.

Social gender dysphoria

Years later, I will remember that this is the first, but far from the last, time that I have felt gender dysphoria, that insidious reminder that the world will most likely never see me as how I see myself.

Although I do have some body dysphoria, most of my gender dysphoria is social. [4] I believe it arises because I have a very clear sense of who I am as a person. When gendered things are specifically brought up and I am put in the “girl” category, I realize that literally everybody else sees me as this totally different thing. The incongruence between my own sense of gender and what others perceive to be my gender causes gender dysphoria.

At twenty-two, I am better at controlling my dysphoric phases than I was when I was four, but the feelings themselves haven’t changed. I still feel like my airflow has suddenly been cut off and that the walls are closing in, or, in more extreme cases, like I want to scream, cry, and throw up at the same time. [5] My first reaction is still to shut myself alone in some room and wait until the hateful thoughts go away, but that’s hard to do, for example, on an airplane when someone says “let me help you with your bags, little lady” or at a restaurant when someone suggests to “let the man pay for the meal.”

You’re not a boy is what they’re really saying, which temporarily breaks down my sense of self-identity until I can process everything and put myself back together.

Just because I’ve trained myself to not have a public meltdown doesn’t mean that I don’t feel the effects of dysphoria. The hateful feelings go away pretty quickly if I can manage to distract myself, but sometimes they can ruin hours or even days. It’s not pleasant — I’ll be distracted and irritable, and I’ll get pissed at myself for being “so sensitive” and letting something as simple as a casual phrase get to me. After all, I present in such a feminine manner; why wouldn’t I be perceived as a “little lady” by those I don’t know? Why would I let it distract me from all the important tasks I have to get done?

Feeling — and dealing with — social gender dysphoria is one of my earliest memories; I only wish that it could stay a memory.

Maybe one day it will. ♚

Notes

[1] Amusingly, it turns out that you can totally call a girl “handsome”, but neither my mom nor I knew this at the time.

[2] The beauty of only having same-sex siblings and Asian parents who don’t talk about this stuff? You don’t find out about sex differences until your friends tell you the difference.

[3] Fun fact: Mimi was originally just my Chinese name. My legal English name was Vivian (yes, after Julia Roberts’ character in Pretty Woman, which I still haven’t watched) until mid-2018, when I proudly drove myself to the Sarasota county court and officially changed it to Mimi. The legal name change was my mom’s college graduation gift to me, and the best present I have received thus far.

[4] A good definition of social dysphoria is “distress and discomfort that occurs as a result of how one is viewed by society.” [source] For example, I

[5] This is obviously the best feeling ever.

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© 2019 by Marty Noel Chenyao. All rights reserved.

marty@fakeandbasic.com | @fake.and.basic

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