In the 1980's there was a television series in the US called "Square Pegs". It featured a young Sarah Jessica Parker and told the story of two nerdy girls who desperately wanted to be part of the "in" crowd in their high school. They had relatively minor problems in real life terms, but they were crippling disabilities in the world of high school popularity. One was brainy and wore glasses and the other was overweight and had braces.
The show lasted for two seasons, and was relatively popular, but not really a hit. After all, how many ways can you tell the nerd gets rejected by the popular kids story, without it getting really stale?
One of the reasons it gets stale so quickly is that we all know the story. Teenage angst is one of the most universal emotions within humankind. Everyone feels like they are a freak, and lives in constant fear of rejection during those years. Even the popular kids, as we saw in "Revenge of the Nerds" (and the pathetic sequels), are really just looking for an outlet for their inner geek.
Child psychologists have tried to combat this by doing such things as launching educational campaigns to convince all kids that they are unique and that being different is OK. That initiative has been such a rousing success that kids openly mock it. In middle school my kids were proud to announce, "I'm unique, just like everybody else."
It is a simple fact of life that part of growing up and learning to function within a social structure will also include these angst filled moments. It can't be helped, and it's not always a bad thing. Caring about where you fit in the social structure forces you to learn how the social structure works and offers the opportunity to discover the parts of the structure that need to be changed. All of life's lessons can't, and shouldn't be taught in a classroom. There is something to be said for real life experience.
(Every trans person who reads this just cringed when I used that phrase, as it has become associated with that arbitrary time period when we have to present ourselves as our proper gender without the aid of any medical intervention, in order to "prove" that we are really serious about this, before we can get the help we need to actually make ourselves presentable in the correct gender. In any other context, it would be called hazing.)
Call it what you want, on the job training, school of hard knocks, trial by fire. The fact is that learning by doing is often the most effective way to learn. We've all been there. The truly messed up social structure that was our high school taught us a lot about ourselves and the others around us.
Most teenagers grow out of this awkward phase. The body matures. The voice stops cracking. Coordination and poise develop. As we saw in "Sex and the City" Sarah Jessica Parker managed to do just fine putting the geeky teenager behind her.
The adult world values other things besides those we treasured in high school. I attended Northwestern University as we were in the throes of establishing the NCAA Division 1A record for most consecutive losses by a football team. We recognised the shifting paradigm as we chanted to the smug Ohio State fans during their 63-0 pasting of us on our homecoming, "That's all right. That's OK. You're going to work for me someday."
Maturity brings stability. We find our niche and we begin to fit in. We learn to turn our differences into assets and use our similarities as a basis for bonding.
But, what if those differences weren't something we felt that could be celebrated. What if we had something going on in our heads that we could never, ever share with anyone, because the world just didn't believe that it could be happening unless we were possessed by demons or mentally ill.
Trans people are accused of being liars and deceivers on a regular basis. I have addressed this before, and it was recently brilliantly covered by my twin Michelle ( http://michellelianna.wordpress.com/2012/10/13/the-great-deceiver/ ). No matter how hard we try to explain that we didn't want to deceive anyone and that we felt we had no choice but to hide ourselves, we will always face the indictment that we did this intentionally to hurt others and that this was selfish on our part.
I grew up in a time that was far more homophobic than the present and I often found myself being questioned about being gay because I was so passive around girls. I could never explain that when I admired a girl's look, I was wondering how she got her makeup to look that way or wishing I could see how I looked in what she was wearing.
How do you think it would have gone over if I had tried to explain to my peers that I too wanted to get into that girl's pants. I just wanted her out of them first.
This is how transgender teenagers become socialized to hide themselves. If, like me, they managed to survive high school with some of their sanity intact, then they had figured out some ways to cope and hide what was really going on inside their heads. We learned to play boy. We married, had kids and usually ended up in overtly masculine jobs. Mine was a maximum security prison. No lack of testosterone there.
For most of our lives we desperately sought an opening where we felt we could break down this horrible wall we hid behind. Rarely, however, especially in the types of lives we tended to follow, does an opportunity present itself to just casually say, "You know. I really think I'm a girl."
What we did experience was an unusual form of exile. We never felt like we really fit in with our peers. We were often left out of the most inner reaches of male society. Our plumbing excluded us from all but the fringes of female society. We were different and we knew it.
Those of us who have decided to transition later in life have either finally found that opening where we could tell the truth about ourselves or the pressure of keeping it in finally became more than we could control and we just exploded. Either way we have been damaged by the experience. We know we lived a lie, and we don't feel really great about that. We also internalised a lot of crap over the years in order to maintain the image we felt was demanded of us.
For years educators and psychologists have worked on methods to help all the teenage square pegs to realise that they don't need to stuff themselves into round holes. They have had some success, and we are learning to celebrate, rather than condemn, diversity. In some corners even trans children are gaining recognition and support, although usually that requires a strong-willed and very supportive parent.
The world is making progress. There is definitely much more hope for future generations. Unfortunately, we can't turn back the clock to be better toward my generation. I did the best I could with what I had. I will always be sorry that I had to be dishonest with some people.
Even today, I have a hard time sorting out how to explain to others that in a world of square and round pegs and holes, I was a unicorn shaped peg looking for a star-shaped hole.