I didn’t realize it at the time, nobody did, but I was a transgendered kid. I never had a good explanation for all the woes of my childhood while it was happening. It just seemed like my life was really difficult and challenging with a lot of stumbling blocks. On the other hand, there were segments of my childhood living that were a joy. I loved school and excelled in every subject but art and physical education. I hung out with my mom, her mom, whom I called “grandmother” and her mom’s mom, whom I called “grandma.” My social world tended to be the Erb children who lived next door (three girls, one boy), my first cousins who lived next door (three girls), and the cluster of women friends who regularly visited and played cards with the female trio of our household. Not that I didn’t relate to my dad. Though he struggled with alcohol addiction, he parented me thoroughly enough that even today he is often my go-to moral reference. When dad was drunk, he could terrorize indiscriminantly. When dad was sober, most of the time we worked out an uneasy truce and tried to get along. We were so different from one another.
I figured out soon enough that I was a gay man, although it took me until my early thirties to begin building a social network with other gay men. But, despite much evidence to the contrary, it just didn’t dawn on me that I was a trangendered soul, well, not until my seventies. Until recently, I thought of the extremes of the transgendered spectrum as definitive of that group of humans. I was sure that I was not a transgendered woman. I was not so sure that I didn’t have something in common with transgendered men. In my teens I struggled with gynecomastia and ended up during my lifetime with two breast surgeries: a botched double mastectomy when I was 17 that left my chest scarred and plastic surgery to correct the botch when I was 39. The motive for both operations was gender dysphoria, since I felt like a man trapped in a feminized body. But if I was a man, it was certainly not a man my dad, or most of his male friends, could easily relate to.
In my seventies, then, I have struggled with the question, “What gender am I?” As it turns out, my approach to defining gender is through negatives. I am definitely not a woman. I don’t desire to dress like a woman. I am not particularly dissatisfied with the masculine aspects of my appearance; it is the feminine aspects of my appearance that give me pause. But am I a man?
When I was about four or five years old, I was sitting in the kitchen at lunch time with my parents, and my father was on break from his grocery store making sandwiches. He was observing me as I prepared a “pie” for our cat, Daisy. First I flattened out two slices of Wonder Bread, and placed one of them in a small, flat tinfoil container. Then I poured some milk in the bread-lined container and put the other flattened slice of bread on top, like a top crust. I proffered my confection to kitty, but after only a sniff, Daisy went away. My father announced that he was going to put a slice of raw onion on my sandwich and that it would make a man out of me. I protested. “Please, dad, don’t make me eat raw onion. It’ll make me sick.” (I had quite a queasy stomach for my first five years.) But dad continued to make his point and execute his plan. Of course, one bite and I threw up.
But it didn’t end there. I began to cry unconsolably. My mom held me on her lap and hugged me, but I was still wracked with sobs. “I want to be a girl,” I gasped. “I want to be a girl!” Mother said, “Now Jimmie, you just have too many of those girl hormones. We’ll take you to the doctor and have some of those girl hormones cut out.” I swear I recall just these words. Many times in the intervening decades I have asked myself—unlikely that it might seem from a purely physiological point of view— if there wasn’t some connection between that definitive event at age 5 and the bilateral mastectomy that a very worried and body dysphoric teenager agreed to at age 17. Or maybe I did have some atypical hormonal balance that led to the gynecomastia at age 14, and it was that hormonal configuration that also explained the dramatic confrontation between two loving but concerned parents and their transgendered son at age 5.
However, I didn’t really want to be a girl then or now. What I was really saying is that if being a boy involves being forced to eat a balogna and cheese sandwich with raw onions, then I want no damn part of it. Putting this in my more sophisticated terms of today, based on a lifetime of dealing with a homophobic society, if being a boy means being a tough guy who likes to fight, if being a boy means dating and marrying girls and picking one out to form a family, if being a guy means liking baiting fish hooks with worms, sucking down raw eggs and Rocky Mountain oysters with your beer, picking fights with weak sisters when you’re drunk, if being a guy means being good at football and basketball and baseball and knowing all the scores of all the major league teams, then, no, thank you, I didn’t want to be a boy then, and I don’t want to be a man now.
Frankly, I repressed almost all of the rage that was engendered by the imposition of totally inappropriate restrictions on who I, Jym Andris, was becoming. That little tranny tantrum that I threw over the onion sandwich was one of the few overt rebellions that I ever engaged in. Most of the time, I used my intelligence to figure out how to just quietly evolve into that music-loving, scientific-minded, rather gentle kid I seem to have been.
I was pestered and harrassed by a lot by boys who were pretty damn sure that they did fit the mold. When I was five, I endured neighborhood boys driving by me on their bicycles and calling me “fairy,” “queer,” and “cocksucker.” Most of my male peers never chose me for activites when they had a choice, though most of the girls were never too good to talk to me or play with me. I think that has been one of the true gifts to my life in the gender cracks of this society, women have always talked with me easily, and I with them. Men, with some exceptions, not so much.
Earlier in my childhood I was a skinny kid, due to my sensitive stomach, but by the sixth grade, years of sitting on the piano bench and lying on the couch reading a book had put a little lard on my butt. Mom always bought my clothes a size or two too big, so that I would “grow into them.” I was the kid who always took most of my books home with me, zipped up in my fat, overstuffed portfolio. I tried each afternoon when school let out, mostly unsuccessfully, to find a way home that didn’t threaten bullying and teasing by the nasty neighborhood boys.
I remember a time in the sixth grade at Willard School, which sat right in the heart of the poorer, downtown area of the small county seat where I was born. Mr. Devol and Mr. Immel, the sixth and fifth grade teachers respectively, met with the older boys to to determine several positions of patrol boy. This was a recognition of leadership. If you were a patrol boy, you got an official badge that was pinned onto a heavy white muslin strap that went diagonally across your chest. You got to stand at the intersection to which you were assigned and make sure the kids got across the street safely and properly. Well, one by one, the other assembled boys selected each other for various intersections in downtown Marietta, Ohio.
When the nominating and voting was over, only little Jimmie Andris was not a patrol boy. It was a humiliating experience. I left the room quietly, but with tears in my eyes, tears I felt all the way down to the middle of my still flat chest. I was just outside the door to the room when I felt a gentle hand on my shoulder. It was Mr. Devol, who was also principal at Willard. He said simply, “Jim, we’ve saved a special position for you. You can patrol the intersection at 4th and Greene Streets, and that is right there by your father’s store.” Of course, my shame and sadness immediately evaporated and was replaced with enthusiasm and excited anticipation. I did make a good patrol boy, and I spent many happy hours doing my job just right.
I did have one more incident that year where the repressed exasperation over male rejection of my fairly innocent, generally cooperative transgendered self just boiled over and exploded. It surprised, shocked and strengthened me. I was used to being taunted on the way home from school. One kid, a little banty rooster much smaller than me that I positively feared, was Ronald Gumm. He was tough and mean. But it was Richard Snow that was trailing me on this particular day. He actually wasn’t all that mean or tough, but he was periodically running up to me and poking at me, trying to get me to strike back. Generally, I hated fighting, because I feared the potential pain that ensued. This was the same fear that kept me from engaging in rough and tumble contact athletics.
But on this particular day, this pudgy little gay transgendered boy had had it with harrassment. Some kind of rage vomited up through me. I turned, truly with hate in my eyes, and faced my feared attacker. I had this huge, completely stuffed portfolio that I was lugging, and I hurled it with all my might at Richard Snow. I couldn’t ever get a basketball into the hoop, or a baseball over the plate, but that heavy portfolio struck Richard Snow right on the side of his head. It had been raining earlier, and there were mud puddles along the sidewalk. Richard fell down in the mud beside the sidewalk in surprise. I rushed up and jumped on him. I pushed his head down into the mud. I was screaming, “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.” I had gone mad with rage, and was completely out of control, just a boiling over automaton.
Fortunately for Richard Snow and for Jimmie Andris, one of the Erb children, Virgil, whom everyone called “Cricket,” had been apparently tagging along, or at least was there in the situation. He jumped into the fray and started to pull me away from my attack. “Jimmie,” he cried, “Stop, Stop! You’ll kill him.” I don’t know whether or not I actually had the strength and determination to kill this boy, but Cricket’s intervention woke me up to how out of control I was, and I pulled my muddy self up and away in confusion. Richard was crying, and I suddenly felt bad for him.
Like most of my memories of pivotal moments in my life, my memories stop there. I really don’t know what else happened. I think I went to my grandmother’s house, which was right nearby, but nothing else remains in my memory. But the memory of the altercation between me and my harrasser remains with me, always burning brightly just beneath the surface of my conscious memories. I think this is one of the reasons why in dangerous situations, I can be focused and positively fearless. My strength was revealed to me from I know not where, and I know I can take care of myself. I don’t get harrassed any more.
Thanks to the 21st Century and the unravelling of the gender binary, I don’t ever have to decide if I’m man enough to be called a man. Yes, I am a male. I am a transgendered male. I’m somewhere under that umbrella. Am I intersex? Medical tests are too expensive for me to find out. Am I non-binary? That seems as good a descriptor as any. Do I need they/them pronouns? I don’t know for sure, but I changed my nickname from “Jim” to Jym.” Am I genderqueer? To that I say that I think I am just queer, queer in gender, queer in sexual orientation. I just don’t fit the mold. And really, why should I?