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The 2021 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras live Saturday 6 March 6pm AEDT on SBS On Demand or catch the full parade at 7:30pm on SBS and NITV.
Warning: This article has notes on self-harm, transphobia
The changing rooms were a nightmare and I refused to enter them.
I didn't want to go into a room unsupervised and be surrounded by a pack of sweaty half-naked teenage boys. That was such a terrifying thought and gave me genuine anxiety. I couldn't even go to the toilets at school, because I was trapped in the wrong body.
Gender dysphoria. They didn't have a name for it back when I was growing up. The closest thing we had in Australia at the time were drag queens and cross-dressers on Jerry Springer. They were men imitating women and I knew that wasn't me. So, what was I then? How come none of the other kids ever felt this way? Why did puberty seem so easy to them? Why was I so weird?
I wouldn't be diagnosed with Aspergers until I was 17 but looking back it makes so much sense as to why I was so naive when it came to gender. I thought that everyone had just made a huge mistake, that I had somehow been incorrectly labelled a boy by some doctor. I tried telling the school counsellor about this but looking back, he wasn’t the best at his job.
"This is a very confusing time for all adolescents your age," he said. "Your body is going through all kinds of changes."
'Yeah, no sh*t,' I thought to myself. 'But what if my gender was a mistake?' I decided to ask him, it couldn't hurt could it?
"What if someone made a mistake?" I asked nervously, terrified that this would somehow get me into trouble.
He could see how nervous I looked and so he leaned forward and asked, "What did you do? It's okay, you won't be in any trouble."
The question scared me. What sort of trouble would I get in for being in the wrong gender? Sometimes boys had gotten into trouble for sneaking into the girl’s toilets but I had never heard of anyone being in trouble for being in the wrong body. Was that why there weren't any other kids born in the wrong gender?
As I stood up to leave, he handed me a book, I think it was Changing Bodies, Changing Lives by Ruth Bell.
According to this book I was male, not female, but that couldn’t be right. Could it? The book talked about being attracted to the same sex but I knew that wasn't me either. There was no mention of accidentally being born in the wrong gender. I became withdrawn after that, disengaging even more than usual. Nothing made any sense anymore and I had no idea how to express it to others. They always misunderstood what I was trying to tell them.
My mother took me to a psychiatrist. My sister and I played with the dolls and dollhouse while they talked. After a while, the psychiatrist asked my mother and sister if they could leave so he could speak with me alone.
We talked for a while and then he asked the question.
"I saw how much fun you were having playing with the dolls."
"Yeah," I replied. "I play toys with my sister at home too. It's a lot of fun."
"Not many boys your age would play dolls with their sisters. Do you ever wish you were a girl?"
'I am a girl,' I thought, puzzled for a moment. Why didn’t anybody else know that? I wasn't really sure how to answer this question so it took me longer than usual to respond.
"No," I finally answered, which was the honest truth. I didn't wish that I was girl. I was a girl and my body wasn't. I wished that my body matched.
Over the years I coped with my gender dysphoria by playing text-based games online, where I could express the freedom of being myself. I could be female in this online world, even if nothing could be done about my physical body. I lived as a woman online and told nobody.
One day a good friend of mine told me she had gender affirmation surgery. I didn't know such a thing was even possible.
That same week a person that I had played online with for years did a search on my IP address, discovered my male identity and exposed me to everyone I played with. My only safe haven was ripped out from under me and all my friends turned against me.
I was about to turn 23 and had been admitted into a psychiatric hospital for attempting suicide. Looking back, it seems like such a trivial thing to try and kill yourself over, but it was my whole entire world back then. It was the only place that I ever felt truly alive and free.
This time I told the psychiatrist everything. He put me in touch with specialists who could help me make my body match my brain. It wouldn't be an easy journey but it would be worth it. It was, at the very least, better than being dead.
Alexis Winters is a freelance writer. You can follow Alexis on Twitter @ravenstoroses.
This story was originally entered in the 2020 SBS Emerging Writers’ Competition and forms part of a special collection curated for Mardi Gras celebrating LGBTIQA+ writers and stories.
Follow the conversation on SBS Australia socials #WeRiseFor #MardiGras2021 and via sbs.com.au/mardigras.
The 2021 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras live Saturday 6 March 6pm AEDT on SBS On Demand or catch the full parade at 7:30pm on SBS and NITV (geo-block removed for viewers internationally).