My mom’s peach-coloured dress lasted over 30 years. There’s a picture of her wearing that dress in an old family album. The Polaroid is faded and yellow, the edges are curled, and time stripped away much of the detail. She’s about 14 years old, smiling and squinting against the sun, standing in front of my nana and papa’s old Oakville, Ont. house. And that dress. Peach with white and yellow flowers. The waist is high, the neckline is modest, and the capped sleeves are hemmed with white detail.
I always thought I looked like Mom. She sometimes says I look like a young version of my nana. I see the resemblance between the three of us.
Years after that photo was taken, I found that dress. My aunt had it tucked away in her basement as part of a costume chest.
My cousins, brothers, and I would perform short, improvised plays for our parents and grandparents whenever we got together. I would find an excuse to play a girl character. I loved wearing Mom’s peach dress. I loved how it draped, flowed, and felt on my body. Playing feminine roles came with a sense of ease: as if my resting default was long hair, dresses, and traditionally feminine attributes.
My Catholic family assumed I’d grow into masculine roles. I avoided conversion therapy, though the church had a heavy hand in my development.
As a kid, I didn’t have the words to describe how I felt in my body.
I’d return to the peach dress for comfort. Repetition bordering on obsession was a hallmark in my childhood. In many ways, it’s a hallmark of my present.
At my cottage there is a movie that is really cool, it’s called Demolition Man. I like the movie because I’ve seen it.
These days, I’m drawn to ancient metaphors describing people born of clay. As a clay child, forces beyond my control moulded me.
Sometimes I felt squished.
I look back and imagine myself, my clay self, stuck under a foot, squashed between the toes. Maybe what I’m imagining is my sense of self or my grip on identity.
I would take off Mom’s peach dress, pack it away in the costume chest and feel… squished.
Until next time, I would think.
I was an intellectual child, you see. I picture Jodie Foster’s warm chest voice narrating my childhood inner monologue — which is odd considering I always saw myself more as an Emma Bunton from Spice World, or Vivica A. Fox from Independence Day.
Those movies, along with the aforementioned Demolition Man, round out my top three favourite movies of the late 90s.
I started writing fiction when I was 10. I often described my protagonist as an Emma Bunton type: a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. That’s how I envisioned my ideal self. That was who I felt I was. An Emma Bunton type.
My fiction seeped into my daydreams and vice versa.
I walked the same route home from school every day. I passed the same houses, saw the same people, and I wondered what those lives must be like. What were those families doing? Did they like the same movies I did? Why do they get a dog, and I don’t?
I’ve been thinking, and maybe I might write books on things that appear in my mind. Some dreams, some I might make up. Some might be horror, some mystery. I’d say that I’d think of more mysteries than horrors. But for now, I don’t really care.
There was one house on my walk I dreamed about specifically.
Here’s where my memory gets fickle: I don’t know if the family in that house had a daughter with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair. I didn’t know the family and I can’t be certain I didn’t manufacture the girl in the house for the sake of my fantasy. My brothers don’t seem to remember such a girl living in that exact house. Last we spoke, I had assumed they, as straight boys, would remember a pretty girl. In fairness, their memories may also be fickle.
I would walk past this house and imagine its living room, its kitchen, its bedrooms, and its pool.
I’m pretty sure that house had a pool. Lots of houses in that neighbourhood did.
I’d dream of a situation in which I assumed the fictional girl’s life. My fantasy included a brain-swapping procedure. The story included a shadow organization performing experiments on the kids in my town. Because it was my story, the organization chose me and, of course, the fictional girl. It was all secret. Very hush-hush.
After the procedure, I would take over this girl’s body, her life, and live out my days as the girl with the shoulder-length dirty blonde hair.
I wrote about her in one way or another on and off for years.
They say write what you know. I may have never said it at the time, but I was writing what and who I knew myself to be.
… she knocked over boxes in her attempt to slow him down. She saw a door and desperately tried to open it. The door swung ajar just as he reached her. The door is now locked. She stumbled backwards into something… All of this faded as Sandy Lyle awoke from her sleep. Sandy is a 16-year-old girl with shoulder-length dirty blonde hair, blue eyes, and was just learning to drive.
That version of myself molded and shifted. I went to Catholic school, which, love it or hate it, is publicly funded in Ontario. I saw one pray-the-gay-away style pamphlet in my high school guidance counsellor’s office. They never directly addressed queerness. I never knew anyone who went to conversion therapy, though Trans PULSE Canada says at least 11 per cent of queer people my age have lived through it.
At my school, the student body contorted any form of queerness into a joke.
Before I dared dream of auditioning for a school play, I had to make sure I had a girlfriend. That’s the type of spy craft I learned. Hide in plain sight. Don’t make waves. Follow the herd.
I signed a 2006 journal entry “Anonymous.”
My deeply emotional, acutely sensitive, and astoundingly intellectual teenaged self believed this was a metaphor. Yes, I do feel anonymous, I thought to myself. Nobody sees me, nobody knows me.
I was breaking new ground in teenage angst. My anxiety deepened and my ego inflated from a concoction of self-loathing and a staunch belief everyone else cared enough to actively ignore me.
I did my best to make peace with male puberty. My teenage clay was molded by the typical high school pressures: am I cool enough, am I funny enough, am I this, or am I that? The barrage of self-doubt, compounded by the moving target of my identity, spat out not-quite atypical results. I had perfected my spy craft. I dated girls, played hockey on weekends, and picked up electric bass.
Music, for me, was less about self-expression and more about adopting aesthetics. I listened to a variety of punk and goth-rock through most of my teenage years. I had a soft spot for indie punk bands.
In 2005, I found a band called 16th Avenue on PureVolume. This was well before Spotify and several years before Bandcamp: an indication of my indie-rock-nerd persona.
I discovered the band before any of my friends. I was on the ground floor of the fanbase. Actively seeking out small town bands gave my spy craft a hipster twist.
I wrote the band an email in the fall of 2005, not for me, but for the story I could tell my friends. The original message has since been lost to the archives, but it went something like this:
Hi Chris, I just wanted to write and say I love your sound. I’m starting a band myself with a couple friends from school. I told them to look you guys up on PureVolume for some inspiration. Looking forward to the next single. Cheers, Brett.
And wouldn’t you know it, the band wrote back.
Hi Brett, thanks for reaching out. Glad you dig our stuff. We don’t have plans to record any new stuff quite yet, but that might change. Good luck with your new band! Cheers, Chris.
My spy craft had a paper trail I could point to as proof of a secure identity.
The stories and the aesthetics distracted me from my ongoing loathing of male puberty. I did not like growing body hair. I did not like my new odours. I found very few of my secondary sex characteristics particularly “fun.”
Worse yet, I did not like how the boys my age made puberty into some kind of competition, occasionally with a show-and-tell portion.
Yes, teenage boys are gross.
I’m very close in age to my two older brothers. My eldest brother was born at the top of 1987, the next in the spring of 1988, and I was born in the summer of 1989. We grew up, physically, at nearly the same time. Mom said she was able to potty train my older brothers concurrently by bribing them with Ninja Turtle underwear.
I looked up to my brothers a lot, and I still do. I wanted a lot of the same things as them. But not when it came to clothes.
Maybe it’s because I grew up with hand-me-downs, maybe it’s because my name has always been third on the list. Either way, I felt the need not only to have my own identity but also to show I had my own identity.
My brothers’ favourite hockey players played forwards. I liked goalies.
Just different enough.
I watched as both of my brothers started sprouting new body hair: beards, armpit hair, chest hair, leg hair. I was scared to say I didn’t want any of it.
When I was 14, I snuck upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom for over an hour. I stared at my legs, at my body, trying to convince myself body hair is normal. All the sex-ed classes said so.
Of course, even at that point the sex-ed curriculum was outdated. I didn’t see myself reflected in health class, and I didn’t feel safe enough to ask if shaving my legs was normal.
I stared at myself in the mirror. Though I didn’t have much facial hair, I knew I’d have to start shaving soon.
I grabbed a razor, sat myself in the empty tub, and painstakingly removed every last hair on my lower body. The cleanup was embarrassing. I plucked each hair out of the tub by hand so no one would hear water running. I snuck the bathroom garbage outside as quickly as I could.
I felt shame. Why did I hate my body?
I was ashamed I didn’t experience puberty the way my friends seemed to.
I was ashamed I wanted to change the way I looked, and I was more ashamed I took action.
I felt shame because, deep down, I felt wrong. And I had no idea how to express it.
Catholic school, Sunday school, my parents, and my family instilled in me the idea I was made the way I’m supposed to be.
I believed, as the clay, I had no say in how I was molded. I was the final product, and I was not to question how that came to be. I was crafted, fired in the kiln, and complete.
Yet I didn’t feel complete.
For years I chased acting and performing as if that would fix or complete me.
3 September 2012
I came across something that’s resonating with me. It’s about different selves and the possibilities of selves. I’m asking myself: “Do I possess some qualities/characteristics that I’d rather keep locked away?”
I probably read somewhere acting was more a way to reveal yourself than to be someone else. All I wanted to do was reveal myself. I just didn’t know what bits of myself I was trying to uncover.
Several iterations of acting school taught me a great deal about work ethic, or more accurately, an unhealthy obsession with the idea of work ethic. No acting coach, audition class, or performing arts certificate taught me how to be honest with myself. Yes, there were many platitudes, but those platitudes concealed the fact acting school is no solid or suitable replacement for therapy.
Not for me, at least.
I often think the years have made me bitter in some ways, wise in others. Not to toot my own horn or anything. Hell, early-30s is not really that old.
Whenever I feel old, I repeat a mantra of clichés: age is just a number, it’s the journey not the destination, wine gets better with age.
Still, my maturity doesn’t seem in line with my mom’s.
My parents got married when they were about 21 years old. They bought their first house before my oldest brother was born. They bought the house I grew up in just a few months before I was born.
In retelling their story, it seems like everything easily fell into place. Nothing deterred them from building a traditional nuclear family.
Mom always told me she wanted to have all her kids before she turned 30, and she always thought three was a nice number of children. I was born before Mom turned 29. Mission accomplished.
I’m 31 now, going on 32.
I’m not married, not settled into a career, not a homeowner, not even a car owner.
When I tell my story to myself, I don’t look back on it and think everything fell into place. I find it difficult not to remember the snags, the bumps, and the hard spots. All of which I blame on myself.
That’s clearly an indication I’m healthy and well-adjusted.
Before I started writing this story, I called my mom. This isn’t a “coming out” story, but this is as close as we have ever been to that type of conversation.
Me: I’ve always been curious — if you had a daughter, what would you have named her?
Mom: I’ve always liked the name “Siobhan.” Like the girl version of Seamus.
Me: I thought that was the girl version of “Sean,” like S E A N.
Mom: Well, I’ve always liked “Seamus,” too. So, to me “Siobhan” is the girl version of “Seamus.”
I’ve wondered if she reads into these hypotheticals for hidden meanings, or if she takes them at face value. Sometimes, I’ll use “creative writing” as a reason to ask the hypotheticals.
These days, Mom typically asks what I’ve been doing. I believe she’s asking how I’m feeling by finding out what I’m doing. I think she knows I’ve had a long-standing obsession with “doing things.”
I like keeping busy.
Most of my journals from 2011 onward focus on a concept I picked up from a book aptly titled Do the Work by Steven Pressfield. I’m amazed I didn’t notice the pattern, but I would write about having “too many thoughts in my head” and immediately follow up with a list of things I wanted or needed to do. As if the act of doing things, anything, would clear my head instead of filling it with what I can only describe as toxic perfectionism.
26 May 2013
I’ve been kinda down on myself lately. I mean, really I have been out of classes for a little over 4 weeks. And things can take time to work themselves out. So it’s a little early to be beating myself up over the status of my career. But it’s never too early to work hard.
28 February 2014
I just had this horrendous wave of what seemed like a realization. I’m worried that I’m becoming nothing. I’m scared that I’m not able, and worse yet I’m terrified that I’m unwilling to find out.
I’ve picked up many things, tried many skills, many of which I abandoned if I didn’t feel I had an immediate inclination to the skill. I’ve tried gymnastics, dance, charcoal sketching, even aviation before I learned my eyesight would prevent me becoming a fighter pilot. Continuing with potential failure often made me believe I lacked talent. However, I would always encourage others to pick themselves up and try again, regardless of the challenge.
Writing this, at this point in my journey, knowing what I know and having lived the experiences I’ve lived, I wish I could have articulated my deep-seated sense of fear.
Fear my clay form is wrong.
Fear my inner life would cause some unknown cataclysm in my day-to-day life.
Fear of being swallowed by the dark ocean of my self-doubt and anxiety.
Fear of my truth.
Fear that finding the courage to recognize my truth would alienate me from those I’ve come to love and cherish.
Fear of being wrong.
Not just “incorrect,” but wrong. As if my clay was supposed to make a vase but instead created an ashtray.
I’ve talked to a handful of close friends about my experience with gender and my overflowing desire to change or update my gender expression. I chose these friends carefully. I don’t think I could have handled out-right rejection.
Building and maintaining support networks has been tough, particularly through the pandemic. I’m part of the nearly 60 per cent of trans and non-binary people experiencing decreased interactions with other trans folks, according to a Trans PULSE Canada survey.
Talking to my partner about my gender expression has been… challenging. I’m relieved we are talking about it at all and not just joking about it. We often rely on communicating primarily in sarcasm and pop culture references in place of vulnerability and authenticity.
Ultimately, my biggest fear is not being enough or not being worthy. I’m terrified all the things I listed before — fear of alienation, fear of disconnecting, fear of being wrong — will manifest as isolation.
Yes, I’m still scared of isolation even after living through 2020. But this goes beyond “social distancing” and into “last person on Earth” type of isolation. The type of loneliness you might feel in a new city, or the emptiness you might feel after losing a loved one.
Except the isolation wouldn’t be temporary. That’s my biggest fear.
My new normal is leading me down a path I wish I had explored years ago.
My new normal is bringing me back to the peach dress and how it made me feel.
My new normal is an evolution in my gender identity.
My new normal is she/her.