| Arts & Culture
Queer Life Before There Was a Q
Look like “a boy,” they call you “a boy.” Everyone believed my mother got her answer to her prayer, and for a while it seemed to be so.
All animals are girls. My mother taught me this early, calling every cat and dog and turtle she with abandon. If someone pointed this out to her, she’d say, Of course there are boy dogs and boy cats, etc. But I don’t think she believed it. In the animal world, in her animal world, boys didn’t exist, let alone the other genders we know now but didn’t back then.
My conception story (the spiritual part) was a family classic, and my mother told it frequently. She’d had the three girls long before—the youngest was thirteen when I was born—and she craved a boy. The cancer wouldn’t let her have one: It had taken all of one ovary and most of the other. So she went to her favorite beach and wandered the sandbars that stretched to the horizon at low tide. I don’t know how much she talked to God at other times, but ankle-deep in the ocean she prayed without ceasing.
Apparently the praying worked. The OB confirmed it when he delivered me, following standard procedure for the 1950s: Guide baby out, cut cord, peek between legs, pronounce gender. Look like “a boy,” they call you “a boy.” Everyone believed my mother got her answer to her prayer, and for a while it seemed to be so.
I wonder if girls ruled in our house because the only boy—my father—had disappeared long before. Not physically, mind you. He showed up every night for his dinner after long hours at the machine shop, where presumably he did what workers do: move around a lot and say things. At home he did neither. Instead he sat rooted in his colonial rocker, earphone in his one working ear, with the Yankees on the radio and the Red Sox on TV or vice versa, cut off from the conversations he didn’t want anyway. Maybe that’s too harsh: I assume he didn’t want them, but of course he never said. When you live with a man like that, eventually he fades to shadow, and only the mother and sisters—the girls—are left.
We didn’t know other genders back then, but we did know other gender words, even whole gender phrases, designed not to describe but to disparage alleged boys like me.
Case in point: like a girl.
I may have heard it first when I was four, thanks to a book I was reading at the time. One of the illustrations drew me in: a plump-cheeked little girl in a shabby green dress, drawn in the cartoony style of the early sixties. I remember nothing else about the book, but she riveted me. These days I’d say I wanted to snuggle with her and I wanted to be her, but those are adult words, not the words of a four-year-old. Anyway, she wore a dress and therefore so would I—only in the house, only for a brief time, but with a thrill that sizzles in my memory even now.
My father must have growled at me for dressing like a girl . He didn’t need to say more: Those three dark words hammered me with shame. Shame enough to silence the gender words that I didn’t have yet but could have explained me if I’d had them.
My parents spoke Swedish when they didn’t want me to overhear. I knew they were talking about me, though, because in my childhood home I was the pojke— boy—and hearing pojke I demanded they translate. One time, maybe I was ten, I asked them how to say girl in Swedish. When my mother told me— flicka —I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. I’ve always been good with languages, so pronouncing both words came easily: FLIK-AH, POY-KEH. Being both didn’t occur to me, not then, not consciously. For that discovery I would have needed a new word, and the new words were still floating far out of reach.
Being a pojke , especially an answer-to-prayer pojke , came with a downside, especially when the other male in the house kept to himself. My mother turned her tsunamic affection on me, a love that swamped all distinctions between people and consumed everything in its wake. My sisters had left home by the time I was seven, so there was no one to deflect the blast or give me any clue it wasn’t normal. Teenage rebellion barely happened: All my high school friends breathed fire against their mothers and I wanted to follow suit, but being too close to her I couldn’t see why.
Why would come later, much later. So would a question: I wonder how she would have loved—or who I would have become—if she knew my reaction to flicka and how, for me, it had blended with pojke to create something new.
Of all the fearsome gender words back then, few wounded me like those from the neighborhood kids—words often accompanied by fists, slaps, bruises, and scratches. The boys taunted me by saying I’d grow up to be a ditch digger. Told me I threw like a girl. Called me more names than I can remember. Trotted out the bête noire of 1960s gender words: sissy . Each of their words stabbed like a shard of glass piercing my skin. Nearly every day I’d walk home sobbing tears they’d also label like a girl .
They had words to wound me but not a single word that told them, or me, exactly who I was. I’ve often thought of their torment as the nadir of my childhood, but which is worse, getting wounded with words or having no word for yourself at all? Or not knowing there was anything for a word to describe?
It was years before I could see something to describe, however dimly. From an upstairs window in the bride’s house, I looked down to a gravel driveway, where my cousin the bride chatted with another woman, presumably about last-minute wedding arrangements. I couldn’t tell for sure because I was barred from joining them, or so everything I’d learned had led me to believe. When it came to women’s conversation, no men were allowed—even if the man was also a woman, which I still didn’t know for sure in 1983 and of course they didn’t either. I only knew enough to jot down a new poem with a new title: “Misbegotten Males.” Pallid words for the craving to stand in that driveway, exchanging the signals that were associated with women but that I knew belonged to me too: share, listen, touch.
For Christmas 2011 my wife gave me a gift certificate to her pedicurist, and I went for a bit of pampering. As I took off my shoes the pedicurist stared at the backs of my ankles. They are long and thin and graceful. “Oh my God,” she said. “Any woman would kill to have ankles like that.”
Until then I hadn’t known I had girl feet. There is only one thing to do with girl feet: Paint the nails. Sometime later, as I brushed on the first few strokes of navy blue polish, the jolt through my body told me I was onto something seismic.
I wonder how she would have loved—or who I would have become—if she knew my reaction to flicka and how, for me, it had blended with pojke to create something new.
Sometimes words don’t exist until something important happens and it’s beyond words. Then the words grow up around it. I made up the first one myself: gender-eccentric . I’d always seen myself as eccentric, and eccentric as charming. The other words I’ve used since then— genderfluid , gender nonbinary —maybe they were already online somewhere by that time and I just missed them. Nowadays they feel more accurate, and nonbinary has an edge, a refusal to let anyone define me, so that’s my favorite. But gender-eccentric still says something no other word will ever say: something about the sheer raw exuberant power to give oneself a name.
I wonder these days about my mother’s prayer. Suppose for a moment that God heard her on those sandbars and gave her the boy she craved. Why wouldn’t God give her a boy who was all boy?
I’m at a loss. Unless all animals are girls means God is, too, and She only makes girls even though some of them are also boys. Unless God simply responded to my mother’s real craving, her deepest craving, satisfied three times before: to keep filling the world with girls.
If I got to fill the world with anything, girls would be my pick too. Which, come to think of it, makes me something no one could have imagined, not even me: my mother’s daughter as well as her son, flicka beside pojke in full bloom.