It never really goes away

My mom had just taken me to get my hair cut. She had to run a few errands before we went back home. I was sitting in the front passenger seat. We were stopped at the red light by the police department when a friend of hers started talking to her from the next lane over. After a few minutes, her friend asked her who the boy was with her in the car.

“That’s not a boy, that’s Irene,” Mom said. She said it matter-of-factly like her friend was an idiot for not recognizing me. I was six years old.

Mom had my hair cut similar to Dorothy Hamill’s hair. Hamill was a popular skater at the time and had a wedge-within-a-pixie haircut. Mine was a straight up pixie. It’s the first time I remember being called a boy. It wasn’t the last time. It still happens today.

On Friday, when I first saw the story on Reddit, I read the headline and clicked on the post. I read a few comments, then clicked on the story. I regret reading the story. It was all my brain needed to send me back to the front seat of Mom’s car.

The short version of this news story is a 9-year old girl was participating in the shot put at her school’s field and track event. A 70 year old asshole decided it was okay to start yelling at this young lady for having two mothers as well as asking for proof she was a girl and not trans.

After outrage from the community, he tried to apologize to the principal, not because he was sorry, but because he was banned from future events. He didn’t care about the girl and her family. He didn’t care about the harm he caused to this little girl.

Kari Starr says her daughter was taking her turn in the shot put event when the accused started badgering her, “yelling to get that boy off the field.”

She says there were many attempts to get the man to stop, but he continued with his “disgusting attack” and demanded the girl’s mothers provide a birth certificate to prove she was born a female.
“My daughter is a girl, was born female, and uses she/her pronouns. She has a pixie cut,” explained the girl’s other mother, Heidi Starr. “He proceeded to say that if my daughter was not a boy, then she was definitely trans and should be disqualified from competing.”

The man and his wife allegedly directed some of their anger towards Heidi as well, accusing her of being a genital mutilator, groomer and pedophile.

“This has destroyed our beautiful daughter’s confidence and she was inconsolably crying during this whole event and continued once it was over and we were leaving,” Kari said.

Kari says this kind of hatred has significantly damaged their daughter and “could very well stay with her for life.”

Read those last two sentences again. I can attest it will stay with her the rest of her life. For me, the repeated verbal attacks over the years destroyed my confidence in a lot of things.

While my story in my mom’s car is the first time I remember such an incident, I have many examples from different periods in my life. I have never been “feminine enough” for some unenlightened troglodytes. I am a cis woman. I identify as she/her. It hasn’t stopped people from getting in my face, sometimes literally, and calling me names or saying insulting things meant to tear me down as a human being. Those words from days past flooded my brain after I read the news article.

I was supposed to be writing all day for another project. Instead, all those feelings of inadequacy, that there was something wrong with me, and the hurtful words from my life circled in my brain. I was so unfocused, I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t do anything but choke back tears from long ago hate, brought back to the surface by an obtuse jackass.

As a little girl, I was a tomboy. I spent my days climbing trees, covered in mud, playing with Matchbox cars and investigating the ants, worms, slugs, snakes, and other things residing in my grandmother’s backyard. I had a dirt bike and made highly skeptical ramps to jump with my bike. The end result was usually scraped knees. Sometimes, there was blood. I played softball. I played football. I blew up little plastic green army men with firecrackers. I’ve had short hair all my life.

Growing up, there were many instances, from teachers to strangers, where I was called a boy. I was often told I was in the wrong bathroom. When I was little I was asked, “Are you sure you’re in the right bathroom?” in that condescending tone that even a little kid recognizes. So, I stopped going. In elementary school, I only used the bathroom when I knew no one else was in there. This meant sneaking into the bathroom during lunch recess when everyone was supposed outside. Many times, I would take extra napkins at lunch and sneak off to the woods at the edge of the playground during recess and pee outside.

I still don’t like visiting public restrooms. If I have to use one, I will sit in the stall and wait until everyone leaves before exiting. There have been times when someone is fixing their makeup or hair and I didn’t realize they were there. I end up running out of the bathroom without washing my hands. While I mostly get eye rolls or lots of checking out of my breasts today, I don’t want to have to deal with adults who choose to be the keeper of the toilets.

When I was 15, I was walking home one day when a group of five girls saw me. I recognized their bully gang. I was usually successful at avoiding them, mainly because they hung out either in the “smokers area” before and after school or the bathrooms in between class periods.

I picked up my pace to stay ahead of them and eventually started running. They caught me at the end of my street and backed me against the chain link fence surrounding the Board of Education.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” the leader said. I didn’t answer.

“I saw it in the girl’s bathroom today,” another one of them said.

“Fuck,” I said to myself. I had been in the bathroom outside the band room that day. It was the only one I used at school because hardly anyone else did. The only time it was used was if you were in class in band, choir, or metal shop. Any other time meant having to run close to a quarter of a mile to make it to your next class on time.

“Who the fuck do you think you are that you can use our bathroom?” the leader said.

“I don’t want any trouble,” I said. “I just want to go home.”

The leader shoved me hard against the fence and put her hand around my throat. I dropped my books on the ground. The leader looked down at my books and started laughing.

“Well, will you look what we have here,” she said. She bent over and picked up an obviously used tampon.

I tried to get away. Two of the other girls grabbed my arms and pushed me back against the fence.

“I bet it doesn’t even know what this is,” the leader said. She shoved the tampon in my face. I turned my head to the left as best as I could. All of the girls laughed.

“I bet it’s a boy. I bet it doesn’t have a cunt to shove one of these in,” one of the girls said. I closed my eyes. I was being held too tightly to get away. The leader grabbed my crotch and squeezed tightly. She let go of the tampon and grabbed my breasts with both hands.

“Well, whadda ya know. It is a girl,” the leader said. They all laughed at me.

“Fuck you,” I said. It was all the words I could muster.

“What did you say to me, you bitch?” the leader said. I spit in her face. She punched me in mine. The other girls let go of me. The leader punch me in the stomach and I fell to the ground. In that moment, I made the decision to grab my books and run home. It was four houses away. I knew my grandmother was home. I could scream her name once I got close enough if I needed to.

I started running. The girls yelled something at me, but I don’t remember what it was. I told myself to keep running and not look back. When I reached Gram’s driveway, I stopped. They hadn’t followed. I took time to catch my breath before walking in the back door and never told anyone what happened. This is the first time I’ve told this story. It’s been 38 years.

About a month before I left my previous job, a coworker complained because she was getting flack for telling people boys should have short hair and girls should have long hair. She told me I was wrong. She didn’t see the irony in telling a short-haired woman only men get to have short hair.

“Where I come from, boys have short hair and girls have long hair,” she said. “That’s just the way it is.”

She’s 26 years old, but apparently lives in another century. I stopped arguing with her about the fifth or sixth time this issue came up. I simply let her ramble on. Our conversations went from me trying to calmly explain things to being irate to simply refusing to engage in conversation.

I decided to stop arguing when she said Native American men should have short hair. She said she wasn’t being culturally inappropriate. It was stupid that boys have long hair, she said. It was either disengage or punch her.

So, here she was again, telling me just a month ago I am wrong for having short hair. Women should never have short hair. She was saying to me, “you are wrong.” It’s all too familiar rhetoric to me.

I have never received an apology from anyone who accused me of not being female. Those feelings of hurt, of being questioned who you are, they never go away. It affects your self-image, your self-esteem, and crushes your spirit. You never feel comfortable being you.

I am saddened to think the nine year old in the news story will remember this cruelty for the rest of her life. The little six year old, nine year old, 15 year old, and 52 year old in me has never forgotten the inhumanity of people who felt they had a right to judge who I am.

In this instance, it happened to a cis girl. It happened, and happens, to me. What will we, as a society, do when it happens to a trans girl? Will the world show the outrage they have shown to this little girl?

The hurt and the pain doesn’t go away regardless of who you are. I fear, however, for the future trans girl that this will happen to because I see the violence coming.

I don’t want anyone to have to carry around memories of being told they are somehow “wrong.” I don’t want anyone to carry unnecessary shame attached to their identity.

Words matter. What you say matters. It sticks in your memory. You can push it aside or shove it deep down inside. Sometimes, it rises to the surface in a seemingly innocuous way, like in a news article. In those moments, you realize the pain never really goes away and you feel like you are six years old again.


My thoughts on the local paper


Returning to what I love


  1. Jennifer

    I can relate. I was a brown girl who lived with a white dad and three brown brothers. I had my hair cut like a boys in the second grade. I will never forget how my classmates made me feel and how they all looked at me. How the popular white boy handed out invitations to his birthday party to every single student but when he got to me he pulled it back and said nope. The feelings of never be accepted in so many things does not ever go away.

    • Irene

      I’m sorry that happened to you. Watching people pass out birthday invites sucked. Then, you had to navigate the world of “don’t show them it bothers you,” because they will say mean things.

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