Belonging is something I’m still working on. I still don’t know how being trans influences belonging. My first inkling I didn’t belong in a group was when I was around four years old.
Most of my neighbors were girls and I used to play indoor and outdoor games with them. The closest neighborhood kid was Natalie, (all names have been changed,) who lived two houses up the street from me. Natalie’s family knew my mom was a working single mom and I think they let me come over to play or watched me while my mom was at work. Up around the corner from Natalie lived Skye, and there was a younger girl whose name I don’t remember and might have been Natalie’s little sister.
I do remember sitting in a circle playing a board game or something in Natalie’s room one day. The conversation took a turn, and Natalie declared, ‘We don’t want to play with you any more because you’re a boy.’
I don’t remember the preamble and I know that’s not a verbatim quote, but the gist was the same. I was a boy thing and because I was this boy thing, something I’d never even thought about before, the girls didn’t want to play with me. I was different but I didn’t know how or why. I didn’t understand. It hurt and I think I went home crying because my friends didn’t want to play with me any more.
Because I didn’t understand the dynamic, this experience repeated several times in grade school. Sometimes it was even the boys who made it happen.
In third or fourth grade, I remember having a good time playing four square and hopscotch with some girls. Some boys came along and started calling me sissy. My older brother called me that and I thought it meant weak.
How was I weak playing four square and hopscotch? It didn’t make any sense to me. Worse, I was asked by the girls not to play with them any more. The girls knew what it mean and didn’t want to be with me because of it or they didn’t want the harassment from the boys. This made me very sad and marked one of the last times I played with the girls.
I played with boys too. It was usually the social misfit crowd. We all belonged together because we didn’t fit in with everyone else. I didn’t feel like I belonged with them in the sense of feeling like they were close friends I could tell secrets to. Some of this was a function of them not sticking around long.
There was a boy in fourth grade who carried a rubber shark with him everywhere and we played astronauts on the monkey bars. He disappeared before the end of the year. There was the black boy in fifth grade who moved from Chicago and didn’t return to my school for sixth grade. There was my friend in sixth grade who parents forbade him to see me because they thought I was a bad influence for reasons I don’t remember. There was the Catholic kid in seventh grade who stopped taking to me halfway though the school year because I told him I didn’t believe in god.
And there were the constellation of boys who crossed my orbit depending on the medications they took or their shenanigan sidekick needs.
When I was asked to play with the boys who seemed to navigate school as a huge pack whose dynamics eluded me, it was usually at their desperate need of a spare body for sports or target practice. Having proved my total incompetence at throwing, catching, and feats of strength during gym, but noted for my speed of running, often from bullies from within that same pack, I fit a useful niche for them.
I would be drafted as running back for touch football, even though I would fuck up the pattern over and over, because when I didn’t drop the ball I could out-sprint most everyone. They loved me for basketball because I was always willing to pass the ball. I was often the unwilling queer in smear the queer when I was just contentedly kicking a ball against a wall by myself.
This was not belonging, it was being used.
I didn’t belong at home because there was hardly anyone else at home when I was there. When my family was there, my brother would often tease and sometimes hit me. My mom often zoned out on the TV and drank wine and smoked until she fell asleep. When my brother left the house to join the military, my mom pulled even further away emotionally. Maybe because she didn’t know what to make of me. Or she was exhausted. Or both.
My grandparents provided stability in my life and were surrogate parents in many ways. There was also an emotional gulf there I was never able to bridge.
This was not belonging, it was existing. I didn’t feel I belonged as much as I felt tolerated because I was family.
Junior high school was hell because it was puberty and was almost constantly bullied. I came close to belonging when I played soccer. We were a good team but I had to quit when I got a growth spurt and developed painful tendonitis in my feet. The only upside to that was being excused from gym for over a year and avoiding some locker room hell.
I didn’t belong anywhere in junior high and I cycled through the punks, the rockers, the new wavers, the nerds, the geeks, and the denizens of shop class. I didn’t feel like I belonged to any of them and if I didn’t drift away I was often pushed away.
I liked listening to the Ramones but wasn’t interested in the spiky hair or safety pins of that crowd so they rejected me like antibodies because I was dull. Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, and Black Sabbath were fun to listen to and the vandalism I got sucked into was thrilling but I realized many of the people I was hanging around in that crowd were tracking to jail. Duran Duran was poppy fun but I didn’t want a side cut and Cyndi Lauper back then drove me up a wall.
Complicating things was my wanting to be but not being able to be a girl. The punk chick with makeup we now called goth. The rocker chick with a leather jacket and skirt, and big hair. The lace like Madonna or a haircut to die for.
And so on and so forth. I didn’t even belong to myself.
In high school I had the inkling of belonging. I was on the chess team, but it was the island of misfit toys in a way. I ran cross county but was solidly junior varsity (JV). The coach didn’t give a shit about JV so I gave up after a year when my best friend didn’t return the next year and I realized I didn’t have other friends on the team.
High school did at least provide a mechanism to interact with girls again through dating and academics.
How I ever ended up with girlfriends in high school is still a bit of a mystery to me given how clueless I was. I must have done something right or at least didn’t do anything too terribly wrong because I had two.
My Renaissance began with talking to girls as friends in class. I looked forward to going to certain classes where I would sit next to the girls who talked me to about class and life. There were shared jokes and confessions, (my favorite was a friend who backed her parents’ car though the closed garage door,) and talk about homework and what we were learning.
We often didn’t communicate outside of class. There might have been the mutual small wave or head nod in the halls, but we never sat together for lunch or went out to do anything together, (excepting friends of one of my girlfriends.) I can only think of a handful of occasions when I spoke with any of them on the phone and they were all about class assignments.
While I felt I belonged in a small way, there were vast gulfs between us due to social expectations I didn’t understand. I would never be and could never be a true girlfriend because I wasn’t seen as a girl. Some guys thought I was gay and those that knew I was attracted to girls didn’t understand these relationships. I hardly understood them myself at the time. Some of the girls probably thought I was gay.
I skimmed belonging like a rock on a pond that skips to the other side.
At university, joining a fraternity in response to family pressure to do so, (my mother, father, grandmother, and two uncles were in the Greek system,) seemed like a way to belong somewhere in the vast ocean of students at the University of Washington. It seemed to work, until it veered wide at sorority mixers and parties.
Those events usually cracked my brain open with what I now know as dysphoria and through that opening I poured copious quantities of alcohol. Back then it was a debilitating envy and sorrow, which the alcohol inflamed to either generalized anger at the world or black despair over my future.
While I did experience camaraderie, it was not belonging. The starkest realization of this was the night before initiation.
Hell week, the week of ritualistically abusing and hazing pledges, was almost over and the last event held the possibility of a last comedic humiliation mixed with a reward. And what reward do you give to 18- or 19-year-old fraternity pledges who’ve put up with a week of shit?
We sat in a large room on chairs arranged in a circle wearing only our underwear. The only light was from a fire blazing in the fireplace. Music from a boombox started and two women in their early to mid-twenties wearing lingerie and high heels came strutting into the middle of the circle.
Guys, I’ve observed, generally do one of two things when around strippers. Either their higher brain functions are short-circuited and they think only with their dicks and they think they’re about to get off and it seems they’re on the edge of going berserk, or they mentally step back to an objectification remove like predators looking at prey.
That moment was terrifying and beyond uncomfortable for me.
It was easy enough for me to feign visual interest because I’m attracted to women, but the whole berserker/predator-prey vibe made me want to bolt. I felt fear for the women even though I knew their bouncers were standing in the shadows. While I knew it was their job, I still felt embarrassed for them. As I watched them move around the circle, I studied the guys hoping I’d be able to mimic the expected rapt attention I was expected to have on my face when it was my turn.
I can only imagine my then-unknown, closeted gay pledge brothers were also having a moment.
I suffered through, all the while being pulled with envy towards the beauty of the women and repelled by fear with the secret knowledge I carried within me.
I did not belong there. At all.
The experiences of feeling like I belonged with the girls and not with the boys carried on up to transition. Post-transition, I’ve noticed a curious thing.
When I’m just being me and doing my thing, I feel like I belong for the first time in my life. Since I haven’t had this feeling much in the past, imposter syndrome hovers in the background making me question if I deserve to belong.
Of course I do!—it’s an absurd question.
When I’m self-aware or self-conscious about being trans, it’s easy for me to feel like I don’t belong in the world I walked through hell to get to. On bad days, rejection slithers into my brain and constricts me to my singular world. It hisses I only belong with myself.
But I tried that. It didn’t work. And now I’m free to find where I belong.
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