The Year I was a Boy
Statistics on autistic people suggest we may be as much as four times more likely than the neurotypical population to identify as trans, nonbinary, or agender. I don’t know if I would use any of those labels to describe myself now, but I really don’t understand gender even still. As a child, it made no sense to me that girls got to do certain things and boys other things. It didn’t make sense to me that the rest of my life was prescribed because of what was between my legs. I didn’t like frilly, feminine clothing. I didn’t like to do many girl things. In general, I liked boy things more.
I’m not sure how much I was aware of my intention to become a boy. I never verbalized it, and I knew it wasn’t something that was actually possible. I just wanted to be more of a boy than I was a girl. I’m not sure I understand gender very well, even as an adult woman, but as a child, all I saw was that, in a literal way, boys had it better.
The year I was a boy started the summer before fourth grade, with my mother cutting my hair. Badly. She was always terrible at cutting hair. She couldn’t get bangs straight to save her soul. So she kept cutting them shorter and shorter.
She kept her own hair very short, and the only way she ever “did” my hair was in braids so tight that they gave me headaches—but boy, they stayed in no matter what I did at school. “I think short hair is the smartest way to keep your hair. It takes less time to wash it and you hardly have to do anything other than run a comb through it. Plus, in the winter it dries so fast you don’t have to worry about catching a cold as soon as you go out the door,” she said as she clipped and clipped.
I could see the light brown hair falling onto the floor in front of me and into the collar of my shirt, causing me to twitch now and again—which didn’t help her with the bangs, I’m sure.
“Your father always wants to see his girls with long hair, but he’s not the one who has to clean the hair out of the drains or who has to buy all that shampoo. He’s not the one who has to deal with the tangles when you girls don’t brush thoroughly enough, and you end up with rats’ nests at the nape of your neck,” Mom went on.
I knew that I got compliments from the women at church and sometimes from schoolteachers when I “did” my long hair with a curling iron. But unless my long hair was up in my braids, it was itchy and got sweaty too easily, and I hated the way it felt when it was summer-hot in Utah.
“As long as I’m cutting, I might as well cut it all,” said my mother, and I could feel the cold metal of the scissors creeping closer to my ears.
I didn’t care. I didn’t want her to shave my head bald, but short of using clippers on me, I couldn’t imagine her cutting my hair too short.
Finally, she stepped back and took a look at it. She used a hand to brush my neck clean. And then sighed. “I think it’s great. But your father will say that you look like a boy.”
At the age of nine, with five older brothers, I thought that boys had it better in every way I could see. They got to do all the “important” work in the Mormon Church. They got to have jobs and earn money. They got accolades and approval from society. Girls got—well, we got to become women and that meant being mothers and not much else.
I wanted to stay a kid as long as possible because when girls hit puberty they had to start being women, which meant wearing makeup and doing their hair, not just on the days that they wanted to but every single day. They had to wear nice clothes and had to wear dresses even when they weren’t in church. They had to speak politely, and as my mother was constantly reminding me, they weren’t allowed to chew gum. They had to obey the rules and do what other people (mostly boys) told them to do.
Boys, on the other hand, got to go on campouts, and no one thought there was something wrong with them if they got dirty and got their clothes ripped. Boys could say bad words and people laughed at them. “Boys will be boys,” people said, no matter what they did. If I complained about a boy touching me or pushing me or making fun of me, that is what adults always said.
Boys farted when they wanted to, and no one told them they were supposed to hold it in delicately. They laughed with their mouths open and scratched their butts and could take off their shirts if it was too hot. They swam in trunks instead of covering up their whole bodies. Boys ate as much food as they wanted, and no one told them they were going to get fat. Boys climbed trees, and no one told them to worry about showing their underpants.
I suspect many young girls might feel the same way that I did, though some enjoy the trappings of femininity and never seem to feel constricted by them. I felt liberated after the haircut. Just as school was starting, I had my birthday—and I knew just what I’d ask for: new clothes for school.
My mom suggested that we go to Sears, her favorite low-price clothing store other than Kmart. For once, this was not something I argued with her over. Sears was where my brothers all got their clothes, though my sisters preferred Kmart if they got to choose.
“Sears has sturdy clothes,” my mother said, a comment on my tendency to ruin clothes as quickly as my brothers because I liked to climb trees a lot—mostly to get away from other people in the neighborhood who were too loud or to find a private space to read my books, since I shared a bedroom with one sister or another all my life until high school.
Mom and I wandered through the girls’ section, which at the time had some cheap dresses and a few jeans with pink details. I carefully held out some items that I knew would not pass muster with my mother because of their immodesty (shirts without sleeves) or their lack of durability (anything made with fabric less thick than denim). My mother shook her head and made a face. “Maybe we should go to Kmart.”
“I bet they’d have good stuff in the boys’ section. Let’s just look,” I said cleverly and pointed at the very durable carpenter jeans.
“If they fit,” my mother said. “And if they’re not too expensive.”
Shortly afterward, I had found a pair of sturdy brown cords and a button-down plaid shirt, along with the jeans I truly wanted and plain-colored T-shirts without any cutesy flourishes, lace, buttons, or offensive slogans.
I tried them on in the dressing room amid the clucks of the sales clerks that I certainly looked like a “handsome young man.” My mother, who possibly did not notice them in her exhaustion, said nothing to correct them.
“Well, they look well made. You’re sure you like them? We can’t bring them back once you’ve worn them,” Mom warned me.
“I’m sure,” I said. “I like them, and I bet they don’t show dirt as much.”
Durable clothing that didn’t show dirt was a bonus for my mother. And I think she thought of it as gender neutral rather than boys’ clothing. I’d made sure not to try on anything with boyish slogans or patches. I’d always preferred subdued colors and very simple prints, which were more often in the boys’ aisle anyway.
Thinking back on the situation now, I wonder if it was the fact that boys’ clothing tended to be more comfortably made, whether it was an issue of less itchy lace that bothered young, autistic me. Or if it was that the colors were less flashy and would draw less attention. I really disliked most social attention. I liked teachers telling me I’d done a good job but not other kids staring at me or making comments. I really don’t know what the answer is, and I can’t go back in time to figure it out. I will say that I am still trying to figure out what kind of clothing I “like,” in terms of how it looks on me. That was not a consideration for most of my life, only what was comfortable and cheap.
By total coincidence, the school mangled my name that year, so it came out as “Ette” on the rolls. My name is a Danish diminutive for Margaret, but it’s mostly unknown in the U.S., so most people don’t know if it’s male or female. But when asked how to pronounce my name, I told my teacher, “Eddie.”
Mrs. Thompson treated me as a boy for the rest of the day, encouraging me to stand up when the boys were called for lunch and letting me go out with the boys for recess first.
I headed to the playground, where I discovered again how different things were as a boy. I had never much liked recess as a girl and had tended to spend my time walking around as close to the building as possible, waiting to go back inside. The girls’ games were usually mean, and I was never part of the in-group, so I was either frozen out to begin with or things were maneuvered around me so that I was “out” quickly.
That was my perception as a child. I think I had no idea how to negotiate games that were really about social teams and gaining points by persuading people to be “on your side.” Boys seemed to be more straightforward. They might be rough, but they didn’t exclude me for the unfathomable reasons the girls did.
For the first time in my memory, I spent recess actually playing a game. I got thrown to the ground, tasted dirt and blood in my mouth, and ran around with my heart thumping wildly for a reason other than fear. I had never realized how competitive I was until I had a ball in my hand and a group of eight other boys were chasing me down a field. I’d always assumed I was uncoordinated and uninterested in sports, but it turned out not to be true. I just had to be a boy to enjoy it.
I did find out what happens if you start crying as a boy—it isn’t good. This was my first sense of the difficulties that came with the social expectations of boyhood. I hadn’t noticed them before; I only saw the advantages. But I wasn’t much of a crier, so I figured I could manage that.
Mostly, I thought being a boy was just plain easier. I had to spend less time thinking about other people’s feelings, and everything seemed more straightforward. Girls always seemed to hint at things, and as an autist, this was hard to understand. Even as an adult, I often find myself more easily friends with men than with women for precisely this reason: men are more able to be honest than women are.
But on Sunday I had to go back to being a girl. I went to my closet and looked at the dresses that were hanging in it. I hadn’t wanted a new dress for my birthday, but somehow I hadn’t been thinking to this moment, when I would have to put on one of my old dresses. It felt like I was being asked to put on someone else’s dirty underwear. It didn’t belong to me, and it was old and stained in some way.
I eventually decided on a jean skirt, and with it I wore one of my new boyish shirts on top, along with sneakers and regular socks underneath. It was partly me, partly not-me, which seemed like it was starting to be the new theme of my life. As I walked to church, I told myself to think of it as a costume. I liked dressing up in pioneer clothes, the swishy skirts and the bonnets. There was a sense of fun in being someone you weren’t. This was almost the same thing.
But at church, I had to deal with the female teachers who were intent on teaching me what it was to be a woman.
“Put your legs together like a lady,” said Sister Kalt, who sat primly with her own legs sewn together, it seemed, with the fabric of her nylons.
I spread my legs farther apart. I felt defiantly self-righteous. I was not causing any problems. I answered questions willingly and wisely. I wasn’t making jokes while the teacher spoke. The boys were poking one another, having fake fistfights, or banging on the window. But instead of addressing the problems with the boys, she turned her attention to me.
“I see London,” she started with the familiar rhyme. Soon, the whole class was joining in with her, boys and girls.
I hated that kind of attention, so I was successfully shamed into acting the part of a “lady,” as Sister Kalt had demanded of me. But I was still resentful, and I soon fell into a routine: I was a happy kid during the week and a miserable one every Sunday.
I began to wonder about other ways that I could be a boy. Two weeks after school started, I got up the courage to ask my father if I could go with him and my older brother James to the weekday Boy Scout meeting at the church. I wanted to join, and I couldn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t be allowed to.
“Only boys are invited to join the Scouts,” my father explained to me patiently.
Of course. Only boys got to do the fun stuff.
“But that’s so unfair,” I said, appealing to my father’s sense of justice. “I’d be a good scout. I can learn all the rules really fast, and I memorize things better than James does. I bet I can do knife skills and camping as well as any of the other boys, too.”
My father did not try to contradict me on these very salient points. “It’s not allowed. Girls can’t be Boy Scouts.” He emphasized the word boy.
I was puzzled for a moment and then said, “Well, is there a Girl Scouts, then?” I had never heard of the Girl Scouts, and in my mind, I imagined they would be the same, with camping and knives and fires. Maybe I could find other girls there who felt like they’d rather be boys. Maybe there would be a whole room full of people like me.
“There is a Girl Scouts,” said my father, “But you can’t join them. They’re not a church organization.”
“Well, why not?” I was becoming upset about all of this. It didn’t seem so much a system of oppression as something that was designed specifically to thwart me. I wanted to do something, and someone somewhere had already decided I couldn’t. None of my sisters had ever seemed to want to join the Boy Scouts, so I figured most girls just didn’t care. After all, the girls I knew hardly seemed interested in getting dirty, scooping out fish guts, or eating burned hot dogs while getting stinky from camp smoke.
“They are filled with feminists and other degenerates,” said my father. “It’s not safe for you there.”
I didn’t really know what “feminists” or “degenerates” were, but apparently they were bad and dangerous.
“Look, this is what we’ll do,” my father said finally. “You can read through the manual on your own. When you come to something that you have to pass off, I’ll quiz you at night and then sign in your book. Then, when you’re finished, you’ll be like a Boy Scout, even if you don’t get the badges and stuff.”
I didn’t care about the badges. “OK,” I said. “And after I do that, you’ll talk to someone and ask if I can join for real?”
“We’ll see,” said my father, and he patted me on the head and sent me off to bed.
I thought he was serious and not just biding his time until I lost interest in boy things. To him, it was just a stage that would pass long before he had to do anything else.
The next day, despite my worry that he would forget his promise, he came home with a brand new Cub Scout book just for me. He showed me the Scout oath and told me I had to memorize that. I think I had it memorized before I closed the book that night.
Over the next several weeks, I read through the book, memorizing required sections and passing them off to my father. I became gradually less enchanted with the idea of being a Boy Scout. It didn’t seem to be about being a boy. It was just about pretending, like I was already doing.
At school, I was busy impressing Mr. Card, the advanced math teacher. My favorite part of school had always been math class. Math was easy for me, probably because of the drills my father did so often in casual conversations with us and the way my mother made us count coins so we understood the value of money. I was the kind of kid who would beg my mother to buy extra math workbooks at the grocery store, so I could do math to my heart’s content. I loved numbers, and at least my parents didn’t suggest to me that it was unusual for a girl to like math, though I suspect people at school did.
Instead of worrying about the whole class going far too slowly through the math book and me trying hard not to rush ahead, Mr. Card set a challenge for me to finish all of the math problems in the entire fourth grade math book as quickly as possible, so I could move on to a set of packets and folders he had in the back that he said had “more interesting math problems.”
In the first few weeks of fourth grade, I feverishly worked through the regular class textbook, turning in my assignments to Mr. Card, who never seemed to correct them. He simply checked them off and said that I was doing well and that he was excited to see what I would do when I got to the bonus work.
He showed me to the back, where there was a special chair and desk for me to work at. I looked through the files around me and found one that was about choosing to design the lawn and gardens for a house under a certain budget. The budget seemed ridiculously high to me, and I was sure I could come in way under it.
I first calculated how much it would cost to put sod over the whole lawn. I came in at about half of the budget. But I decided that didn’t really do the job. I was supposed to make the house look good. I knew that, at our new house, we had flowers around the house itself and then lawn after that. So I put in a few flowers and took out lawn in careful squares, so I didn’t have to calculate triangles or estimate circular shapes. I still came in under budget. It was fun to draw the flowers freehand on the graph paper. I added some bushes in and then put in a couple of maple trees. I figured if this was really my house, there would need to be trees for climbing.
I have no idea, looking back on this, if Mr. Card treated me as well as he did because he thought I was a boy, but I’m glad I had that experience with math at such a young age.
Near the end of the year, I was invited to a birthday party at a skating rink. Almost a hundred people were invited, nearly the whole school, and even though I hardly knew the girl who invited me, I went because it sounded like fun. I’d roller-skated in New Jersey before I moved, and I was good at it.
The DJ was just announcing that it was “girls only” skate time when I got out and moved toward the rink. That was when I saw a row of girls who were holding hands and standing around the edge of the rink, keeping boys off.
“No boys allowed,” they said as I moved toward them.
“I’m a girl,” I said casually.
“You look like a boy,” one of them said.
“I’m a girl,” I said again. “Really.”
I put my hands in my pocket and realized that I had a Kissing Stick in it, grape flavored. I pulled it out and held it up.
“See?” I said. “I’m a girl.” I was certain that no boy would ever carry a Kissing Stick in his pocket. I had it because my older sister Rebecca had gotten one for Christmas, but she thought it was for little kids. She used real lipstick, so she gave it to me, since I always had chapped lips in the winter.
“Anyone could have that,” said the girl, who then blew a bubble and popped it.
“I’m a girl,” I said. The song was almost over, but this wasn’t about the song anymore.
“Kiss a boy, then,” said the girl. “Or go into the girl’s bathroom.”
“I’m not kissing anyone,” I said. The thought appalled me at that age. Cooties.
“Because you’re not a girl.”
“You’re saying I’m a boy, then?” I said. I’d spent the beginning of the year trying to be a boy. Why did I care if she said I wasn’t a girl now?
She shrugged and put a finger to her lips, pulling out a long string of the bubble gum and wrapping it into an elaborate pattern before putting it back into her mouth. “I don’t know what you are.”
“I’m a girl,” I said again.
“We’re girls,” she said, nodding to the line of girls who were still holding her hands. “You’re not one of us.”
And I think she was right. This was the feeling I have had throughout my life. Though in high school I worked hard at what I would now call “masking”—the conscious attempt to notice and mimic the behaviors of neurotypical people to appear to be “normal”—by wearing makeup much of the time and choosing more fashionable girlish clothing, it always felt false and like I was lying. It was a burden that I paid for often with headaches and days of “sickness” that I couldn’t explain.
Since my diagnosis in 2017 at the age of 46, these old memories of fourth grade have a different meaning to me. I didn’t feel either male or female. I find myself saying sometimes that gender is a mass social delusion, though of course I know that, for other people, it feels like a key part of one’s identity. I still feel like I’m putting on a masquerade when I wear feminine clothing, and I prefer to wear a race T-shirt and jeans with my hair pulled back into a serviceable ponytail. I like some feminine-coded things: knitting, crocheting, baking. I like some masculine coded things: competitive Ironman triathlons, mowing the lawn, math. I still don’t understand why these things are supposed to be related to genitalia when it’s obvious to me now that different cultures attach very different pursuits and characteristics to one or the other of the gender binary.
I’m not a boy, and I’m not a girl either. I suppose I’d describe myself as “auti-gender” or “gender agnostic” now. An autistic friend of mine said she thought of herself as “gender indifferent.” That works, too. Mostly, I’m just me. I think of myself as an athlete, as a writer, as a mother, as a Mormon at times (and at other times as a post-Mormon), as a reader, an essayist, a visionary, a poet, a Star Trek fan, a David Tennant fan, a skeptic, and many other things. My kids sometimes say I’ve become a Buddhist monk, and I laugh at that. But I think it’s more accurate in describing me than the word woman will ever be.