In this, my 70th year of life, I am traveling a journey out of yet another closet.
Throughout my entire 70 years, I have never “felt” male, and except for between the ages of 8-10 when I “felt” female, the vast majority of my time on this planet I have neither felt male nor female. The trans movement has given me the space and the terminology to see and define myself as “non-binary” and “agender.” Specifically, my brilliant inspirational young cousin, Ariel Mahler, assisted in prying open my gender closet door by courageous example.
My pronouns are Warren, Warren, and Warren in the first, second, and third person, in the past, pluperfect, present, future, and subjunctive tenses. I also don’t object if people use pronouns to describe me since “he” and “she” never had much resonance or importance in connection to myself.
I am not defining as “trans,” and though I suppose that I present as “cis,” I honestly don’t know, or at this point in my life particularly care, where I fall on the wide and extensive cis/trans spectrum.
I do know quite well, though, that I have deeply internalized the social repression against breaking free from the gender status quo all of those 70 years. I am painfully aware of how I continually self-censor and edit my public behavior and presentation. Though I don’t necessarily like it, I cloth myself in muted colors in my attempts to remain as invisible as possible in the course of my day. I am working now to understand how I want to express my gender with integrity, authenticity, and lack of fear.
I was born in 1947 during the so-called “McCarthy Era” — a conservative time, a time when difference of any sort was viewed with suspicion and scorn. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, a brash young Senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, sternly warned that “Communists [often thought of as Jews in the public imagination] corrupt the minds and sexual perverts [homosexuals] corrupt the bodies of good upstanding Americans,” and he proceeded to have homosexuals and Communists officially banned from all government service. To McCarthy, Jews, homosexuals, and Communists were one and the same.
For homosexual U.S.-Americans during this era, police frequently raided their bars, which were usually Mafia owned; the U.S. Postal Service invaded their organizations and even published the names of their mailing lists in local newspapers; and people regularly lost their jobs when “exposed.”
Gender nonconformers and those suspected of “homosexual tendencies” were often involuntarily committed to mental institutions by family members, where they lost all civil rights and control over their lives. Some were never released. Some were forced to undergo electro-shock therapy; some were even lobotomized (doctors removed the frontal lobe of peoples’ brains with instruments forced through the eye sockets or the nose).
Before my second birthday, my parents suspected that I might be gay, or to use the terminology of the day, “homosexual.” Shy and withdrawn, I preferred to spend most of my time alone. Not knowing what else to do with what they considered as my gender non-conformity, my parents sent me to a child psychiatrist at the age of four until my 13th birthday.
There was a basic routine in the “therapy” sessions. I walked into the psychiatrist’s office, took off my coat and put it on the hook behind the door. The psychiatrist then asked me if there was anything in particular that I wanted to discuss. I invariably said “no.” Since I did not understand why I was there in the first place, I surely did not trust him enough to talk candidly.
When I was less than forthcoming in our conversations (which was on most occasions), he took from the shelf a model airplane, or a boat, or a truck, and we spent the remainder of the hour assembling the pieces with glue. In private sessions with my parents, he told them that he wanted me to concentrate on behaviors and activities associated with males, while of course avoiding those associated with females.
He instructed my parents to assign me the household chores of taking out the garbage, mowing the lawn (even though we lived in an apartment building and we did not have a lawn), and not washing or drying the dishes. Though I had loved to design and sew clothing for my sister’s dolls, this was now forbidden to me. And as if this all were not enough, he advised my parents to sign me up for a little league baseball team, which, despite my hatred for the sport, I was forced to join for two summers.
I did not tell the psychiatrist when I was about eight or nine years old that I thought I might be – or possibly wished I were – pregnant. The son of my mother’s friend who lived across the street frequently came over to our apartment. On these occasions, he tried to engage me in a wrestling match, but I always refused since feeling I was pregnant, I feared wrestling would harm my fetus. About one year later, I no longer believed I was female.
If I learned anything during my time with the psychiatrist, it was that I should cloak any signs of gender nonconformity from the sun’s exposing rays – to keep it well concealed deep within my consciousness, only to be resurrected during those rare but precious moments of solitude. It wasn’t long into my sessions with the psychiatrist that I began to believe that there was indeed something wrong with me. Why else would my parents be sending me, trying desperately to change me: my “mannerisms,” my interests, my likes, and even my dislikes?
“When you wave,” my father sternly warned one afternoon on the front steps of our apartment building when I was eight years old, “you MUST move your whole hand at the same time. Don’t just move your fingers up and down like you’re doing.”
He grabbed my arm, and despite my free-flowing tears and cheeks pink with shame, he vigorously demonstrated the “proper” hand wave for “a man.” Then, as if anticipating the scene in the film La Cage Aux Folles (and the U.S. remake The Birdcage), my father took me into the backyard and forced me to walk and run “like men are supposed to move.” Obviously, I had previously been doing something wrong. “Of course the other children pick on you,” he blamed. “You do act like a girl.”
For most of my years in school, I was continually beat and attacked by my peers who perceived me as someone who was “different.” Names like “queer,” “little girl,” and “fag” targeted me like the big red dodge ball my classmates furiously hurled at one another on the schoolyard. I would not – and could not – conform to the gender expectations my family and peers so clearly projected onto me, and I regularly paid the price.
This kind of bullying and policing of my gender expression started the very first day I entered kindergarten. It was 1952 and I was attending public school in Bronxville, NY. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, “Don’t cry. Only sissies and little girls cry.”
Some of the other boys overheard her, and quickly began mocking me. “The little girl wants his mommy,” one said. “What a sissy,” said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she found me.
Years later, in 1970, after I came out as gay to my parents, I asked my mother why she and my father had sent me to “the toy doctor,” as they had once called the psychiatrist. She looked at me urgently and with deep affection said:
“You wouldn’t have understood at the time, but we sent you because we felt you were too effeminate, and we thought you would grow up to be a homosexual. Your effeminacy,” she continued, “was the reason why the other children couldn’t accept you and why they hurt you. We sent you because their taunts hurt us too, and we couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
That wasn’t, however, the whole story; she also confided another reason for sending me. She said that my father suffered the pain of being different when he was young. He and his two sisters were the only Jews in their schools in the 1920s to 1930s in Los Angeles. Because of the anti-Semitism at the time, the other boys beat him up nearly every day.
While in elementary school, he hid in a small crawlway beneath one of the buildings during recess period to avoid attack by his peers. My mother told me that she and my father attempted to help me conform to my gender expectations to fit in so I wouldn’t have to go through what my father experienced.
My parents sent me to the psychiatrist, at least in part, in an attempt to direct my eventual gender expression and sexual identity (at the time, they equated my gender non-conformity to my possible homosexuality). My school reinforced this on my classmates and on me every day.
Even in kindergarten, children were channeled into gender-specific activities: boys were encouraged to participate in sports, girls to hone housekeeping skills such as cooking and cleaning. This less-than-subtle encouragement seemed to grow more rigid with every year of school.
Despite this, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade, I auditioned for the school chorus and was accepted along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the chorus was not due to any gendered imbalance in the quality of boys’ singing voices. The determining factor was one of social pressure.
I and the other four boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class despised and picked on us, and viciously labeled us “the chorus girls,” “the fags,” “the sissies,” and “the fairies.” The girls, on the other hand, who “made it” into the chorus were well respected and even envied by the other girls in the school.
When I was 12-years-old, the bullying, the shame, and the pressure from my father to conform merged to bring me to take a large bottle of aspirin from our bathroom medicine cabinet, and toss a large quantity into my mouth, since I wanted to end the pain I was feeling. Somewhere I learned that doing this would cause massive internal bleeding, which could lead to death.
A part of me, though, still wanted to live, and I quickly spit out the pills into the sink with the bitter taste lingering literally in my mouth and figuratively in my spirit.
During high school in the early 1960s, I had very few friends and I rarely dated. It was not that I did not wish to date, but I wanted to date some of the other boys. I could not even talk about this at the time since the concept of high school gay-straight alliances was still many years in the future. In high school, the topic of homosexuality and gender-nonconformity rarely surfaced officially in the classroom, and then only in a negative context.
I graduated high school in 1965 with the hope that college life would somehow be better for me. I hoped that people would be more open-minded, less conforming, more accepting of difference.
To a great extent, things were better. At San José State College (later University), I demonstrated my opposition to the war in Vietnam with others. I worked to reduce racism on campus, and I helped plan environmental ecology teach-ins. Nevertheless, there was still something missing for me. I knew that I did not and could not conform to societal gender expectations and that I was gay, but I had no outlet of support through which I could express my feelings.
As far as I knew, there were no openly gay people, no support groups, no organizations, and no classes or library materials that did anything more than tell me that homosexuality was “abnormal” and that I needed to change.
In 1967, I finally decided to see a therapist in the campus counseling center, and I began what for me was a very difficult coming out process. And then during my first year of graduate school in 1970, I experienced a turning point in my life.
In my campus newspaper, The Spartan Daily at San José State College, I saw the headline in big bold letters: “GAY LIBERATION FRONT DENIED CAMPUS RECOGNITION.” The article stated that the chancellor of the California State University system, Glenn Dumke, under then Governor Ronald Reagan’s direction, had denied recognition to the campus chapter of the Gay Liberation Front.
In the ruling, Dumke stated that “The effect of recognition…of the Gay Liberation Front could conceivably be to endorse or to promote homosexual behavior, to attract homosexuals to the campus, and to expose minors to homosexual advocacy and practices” and “…belief that the proposed Front created too great a risk for students – a risk which might lead students to engage in illegal homosexual behavior.”
Consensual same-sex sexuality remained illegal until 1975 in California, almost five years after I left the state.
This was the first I had heard of such a group, and the first time I had heard about other gay people on my campus. I called the coordinator of the group, and she invited me to the next meeting. Since the chancellor did not permit group members to hold meetings on our campus, they met at a little diner on a small side street a few blocks off campus. Unfortunately, this only confirmed my fears of the underground nature of LGBT life. As I approached the door to enter the meeting, I felt as if I were a member of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation.
Upon entering, I saw around 15 people. I recognized one young man from my chemistry class, but the others were strangers. I saw a near even mix of men and women, which made me feel a bit easier. In my mind, I had envisioned 50 men waiting to pounce on me as I entered, but I soon discovered that they were all good people who were concerned about me. They invited me to their homes, and before too long, I relaxed in their presence.
I left San José in January 1971 to work for a progressive educational journal, EdCentric, at the National Student Association in Washington, D.C. Within a few months after arriving, I founded and became the first director of the National Gay Students Center, a national clearinghouse working to connect and exchange information between the newly emerging network of LGBT campus organizations within the United States.
One year after leaving San José, I read that students at Sacramento State University, represented by the student government, sued the chancellor in Sacramento County Superior Court and won the case forcing the university officially to recognize their group. The court upheld the students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association by affirming their contention that “…to justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable grounds to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced; there must be reasonable grounds to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent.”
During the early 1970s, I was an active member of Gay Liberation Front in Washington D.C., which formed the leading edge of a movement rising like a phoenix from the ashes of the Stonewall Inn in New York City. Our first meetings were held at Grace Church, the Washington Free Clinic in Georgetown, and All Souls Church on 16th Street, until we managed to rent a brownstone on S Street NW to establish a Gay Liberation Front living collective. Meetings provided a space for gays, lesbians, bisexual women and men, and trans people to come together and put into practice what feminists had taught us — that the “personal is the political.”
We laughed and we cried together. We shared our ideas and most intimate secrets. We dreamed our dreams and laid out plans for a world free from all the deadly forms of oppression. And, somewhere along our journey, we began inventing new ways of relating to one another.
For those of us assigned male at birth, we came to consciousness of how we had been stifled growing up in a culture that taught us to hate the feminine within – that taught us that if we were to be considered worthy, we must be athletic, independent, assertive, domineering, and competitive. Most of all, we at least began to rejected the idea that we must bury our emotions deep within the recesses of our souls.
Through the years, with the increasing visibility and recognition of people along the trans spectrum and of intersex people who have contested and shaken traditionally dichotomous binary notions of gender and sexuality, I have been able to go even further in my “coming out” process.
Their stories and experiences have great potential to bring us back into the future — a future in which anyone and everyone on the gender spectrum everywhere will live freely, unencumbered by social taboos and cultural norms of gender.
I am proud and thankful to those who have laid the path and all who have traveled and extended its course by courageously calling into question this social myth of gendernormativity, the boxes society places us into as it imposes upon us our gender scripts.
Trans and intersex people have opened the boxes for all of us ultimately to obliterate the gender status quo of binary oppositions by demonstrating the visible ways, the options upon an enormous gender continuum — one that does not depend upon a sex assigned to us, a sex that is imposed and forced upon us by others. The trans and intersex communities have shown us the essential fluidity of gender.
In my case, who said old dogs can’t learn new tricks? That is simply an ageist expression anyway!