When I was ten, I hid my secret self in a coffee-can buried in the backyard. The coffee-can was pedestrian (Chock full o' Nuts) but it held a magical item: my first pair of pantyhose. The hosiery, despite being cheap supermarket-brand, was precious to me as a symbol of femininity. I remember its artificial scent, its elasticity, the way it hugged my legs.
From earliest memory, I knew I was female. I know it with absolute certainty. My announcements of this fact during childhood were not welcomed by my parents, a couple of immigrants struggling to assimilate into a new country. It was the 1950's: a time of conservative values and social conformity. My perceived deviance threatened my parents' plan to fit into suburban America. They warned me of this, repeatedly.
The lesson I was taught is that when you're unacceptably different, you have to hide who you are. Yet, during the next half-century, I strove every moment to be and reveal my authentic self. As society's gender-restrictions slowly loosened, I was able to do this more and more. Testing social tolerance, however, means hitting the Procrustean wall of transphobia and that impact is always painful.
In the Fifties, there was a single, popularized example of someone like me, an ex-soldier named Christine Jorgensen. She was openly, viciously ridiculed. Two decades later, another person emerged (Renee Richards) who was also flagrantly mocked. Back then, gender was thought to be immutable and those who didn't accept their assigned-sex were considered mentally ill. Later, cultural advances helped ease this a little and were initiated by gender-bending musicians and their art. Over time, scientific research also deepened our understanding of gender, peering beyond the simple binary and recognizing complexity in the subject.
Personally, I always tried to be open about myself. I never stopped explaining my nature and seeking acceptance. I told my teachers I was a girl; unfortunately, they reported back to my parents who put a stop to that. I adopted feminine gestures which were sharply criticized as wrong for a boy. When I was 6 years old and told I couldn't wear girl's clothes, I went into the bathroom, wrapped a bath-towel around me and imagined it was a dress. In high school, I wore flowery crop-tops and platform shoes that were possible only because Seventies fashion went crazy and toppled some gender-rules for clothing. My efforts to express femininity have been ceaseless but are tempered by concern for safety; the expressions are never unnoticed by others and expose me to condemnation and harm.
Adulthood gave me greater freedom to explore my nature -- but in private settings. It wasn't until a decade ago that I felt comfortable publicly identifying as transgender. I regularly have to explain to blank faces what that means. The Internet and blogging help me immensely to connect with others.
Living under the conditions I grew up in can crush a person. The general suicide rate is only 4% yet for people like me it is 41%. That shouldn't be a surprise -- if you're told you can't be who you know you are, you question your place here. Unlike some, I never doubted myself. I never stopped struggling to find space to be myself. As early as my teens, I believed it was a failure of society, not me, that was the problem.
Today, understanding of gender-identity is growing. A seed of tolerance has taken root. The medical community no longer classifies us as mentally ill although there still isn't much sympathy or help there. My dream is to live long enough until society catches up to the reality of who I am. I hope, along the way, to meet open-minded people willing to be my friend.
Ally has been a lawyer for 35 years, a motorcyclist for 20 years and transgender her whole life. She blogs at Shybiker.