Speaker by Various Artists


Adventures In Gender Identity

by Shel Walmsley

It started during a recent visit to a gynaecologist. Don’t worry, I’m fine. 

I felt an intense discomfort as I picked up my prescription and I knew immediately that this was gender dysphoria. I’d experienced it many times before but my understanding of it in the past was so narrow and uninformed that I didn’t even realise that’s what it was, which left me wondering what on Earth was going on.

What I can tell you now is that I’ve had what is referred to as gender incongruence, which is when your gender identity does not line up with the gender you were assigned at birth, for as far back as I can remember and that gender dysphoria has ebbed and flowed for me over decades.

I thought briefly about telling you everything in the spirit of honesty. I’m not ashamed, it’s only a body. We all have one and we all sometimes need medical intervention. I’m physically disabled though and with that can come the feeling that our bodies are somehow not entirely our own or at least that our embodied narratives do not belong to us and so I sacrifice radical honesty at the alters of dignity and privacy, for today. I will tell you what you need to know.

When I was young, I always wanted to play the “boy” parts in any roleplaying games. That doesn’t mean much, that’s the experience of plenty of kids. Personally, I wish it were more permissible, particularly for little boys who are often taught from so young what are acceptable outlets for play and expression and what might get them into trouble. I probably wanted to play dog and cat parts at least as often. That doesn’t mean I really wanted to be a domestic pet, though maybe I did. Kids are weird.

I preferred playing with gender neutral or traditionally masculine toys. I loved Transformers and guns. I hated pink. It was the 80s anyway and while there was a good amount of gendered play going on, you could definitely fly under the radar as a gender nonconforming child. None of this matters. None of this means anything. 

I grew up in a family with three sisters, a mother and a father and I’ve never had a fixed idea of myself as a girl or woman. I didn’t feel a sense of alienation, even as a physically disabled child. I had an idyllic childhood outside of surgeries and medical procedures and physiotherapy, with parents who loved us very much and sisters whose company I enjoyed. I don’t remember feeling like an outsider, even if I could only imagine myself as male and I did occasionally wonder why that was.

My fantasies were of wearing an Italian tailored suit and carrying around a leather suitcase to and from a job that would earn me loads of money – this was the 80s. I was exposed to a lot of images of men who wore jeans, white t-shirt and black leather jacket and that came into future fantasies I’d conjure up for myself, too. Nothing I ever imagined for myself as a child was through a female lens or point of view. This too is perhaps incidental. After all, I never imagined myself as disabled, either. 

At intermediate school, I hated that I had to wear the “girl’s” uniform. I wanted to dress like the boys. I started to feel like I really didn’t have anything much in common with the other girls. I never found any of it stressful, though I did start to wonder why it was that I wanted to be a boy. I was still young, preteens, and I had no real concept of what it was to be transgender back then. I knew about drag queens, I knew a little, too, about transsexuals and transvestites as they were classified then. I was a fairly precocious child I suppose and I latched on early to anything that had the slightest whiff of queerness with gay abandon. 

When I was around 11, I was sent on my own for a month to Burwood Spinal Unit in Christchurch to be assessed and to see if they could help me with things like gaining more independence in my own self care and other aspects of living with a disability. There, for most of the time, I was both the only child and the only female on the ward and I was in heaven. Many of these men had been disabled through building or sporting accidents. Being in that masculine environment felt like another kind of home to me.

I didn’t understand why. I just knew that while it was horrible to be away from my family, this was a liberating experience for me and one that subconsciously helped me to understand myself better.

In my teens, I began to present myself as masculine as possible. I’d had my long hair cut short and I would style it with so much product that my hair would crunch if it was touched. I remember this specifically because I was at Wellington Hospital for an annual checkup with the Children’s Spina Bifida Clinic and the neurologist, who was checking my shunt function by pressing the valve located under my scalp, commented on it. 

It was around this time I started being called, “sir”, “mate” and “buddy”. I’m 40 now and this has never stopped, though these days I get “bro” more. Being read as male, for me, is more consistent now than it’s ever been. This has never bothered me for one moment. Quite the reverse, it’s always made me feel better, somehow. I don’t understand it but I know it is connected to the time I spent at Burwood, I know it’s related distantly to never really feeling like a girl, I know it’s of a piece with the intense feelings I had when I saw an image in a magazine for the first time of a transgender man, knowing one day that could just as well be me. For now though, I was allowed to wear mainly masculine clothes and I was allowed to have my hair short and that alleviated a lot of what I now appreciate was a fixed and deep incongruence I felt between what I knew myself to be and what others might have seen. 

In my early 20s I had a severe and long lasting problem with depression and along with that depression came extremely difficult gender dysphoria. I had access to the internet via shared computers at the university hostel where I was living and I spent a lot of time that year researching female to male (FTM) transition. In the end and with a lot more knowledge under my belt, I decided that it wasn’t the right thing for me to do, to transition. I’ve always been sure of who I am, I just haven’t always had the words to describe that side of myself or known whether anything was to be done about it and so I never talked to anybody because I didn’t know how. 

I can be self destructive but I also have a dedicated and strong streak of self preservation. I’d like to think too that while I haven’t always understood myself, I’m quite self aware. Imagine my surprise, then, when at the age of 40 I had such intense feelings of gender dysphoria I began to question who I am all over again. 

While I do sometimes feel too old for all of this, all of the different words that people are using now to describe themselves have helped me. It seems to be a not uncommon thing now for people like myself who are trying to figure out where we fit, to label ourselves in a few different ways, on our way to a place that feels right and comfortable for us. I’ve done this myself and have tended towards umbrella terms that might do for a wide range of experiences and identities. Gender nonconforming very obviously fits, gender diverse, genderqueer, I’ve embraced all of these and happily describe myself in these ways, still. More recently I came upon transmasculine and was happy to note that it’s being used more and more as an umbrella term for people who were assigned female at birth but identify as masculine. It feels like a comfortable fit for me. 

Back at the gynaecologist, at my second appointment I explained that I had experienced quite intense gender dysphoria during and following my last appointment. At the previous appointment I had explained to her that I lived with severe and sometimes debilitating medical trauma. Disclosing both of these things about myself led to the most affirming and positive experiences I’ve had at the intersection of disability, gender and medicine to date.

Since then, I’ve been on yet another journey of self-discovery, sparked initially by trauma and dysphoria and shaped into something more positive. I’m starting to have very real compassion for myself, which is something that doesn’t come easy. I’ve come to the conclusion that while in another life and at a different time it might have been right for me to transition, in this life it is right for me to continue as I am in this liminal space that has always felt more comfortable for me in not being quite definable. My pronouns are whatever you like and however you see me. I know who I am and that’s enough. 

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