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Alexandra Billings

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The Man of the House

Posted: 01/13/12 06:07 PM ET

I was standing paralyzed in the middle of the room with a hammer in my hand. Mr. Lorracco, who always reminded me of an escaped Oompa Loompa, waddled up to me and announced to the entire sixth-grade shop class:

"Boys. This is exactly what you don't want to happen!"

For four weeks we had been building door frames, and now he was pointing at mine, which was lopsided, crumbling, and disjointed. The point had been to build this thing, complete with a swinging door that actually swung, and a sturdy frame sitting atop a sound and safe foundation. Having never had a hammer in my hand in my entire life, and never having the need for one, or the desire for one, my first hurdle was figuring out which end did the pounding and which end didn't. That was week one. The rest of the time for me was spent trying to copy the rest of the boys, or constantly coming up with new diseases in order to be excused from class.

The humiliation I suffered at the hands of Mr. Lorracco paled in comparison to gym class and recess. There, I fell into the hands of random boys who were raging with hormones and filled with something huge that seemed to consume them. Back in the late '60s, bullying wasn't called "bullying"; it was called "growing up." I remember going to the principal of my junior high school and trying to explain my situation the best I could. I didn't really understand why I wanted to be around the girls, why I needed to have female company, why learning to cook and draw and paint and sing and dance around the cafeteria was preferable to holding a saw, chopping, climbing, throwing large rocks at things or figuring out a hammer. I didn't have any answers; all I knew was what I felt.

"This is all part of growing up," he said to me from across his desk.

"But why does everyone hate me so much?"

"No one hates you. You're exaggerating," he said, never looking up from his pile of papers.

"The boys threw food at me yesterday and pushed me down the stairs and called me a 'faggot.'"

"Then stop acting like one."

And there it was.

Those words lived in me for the rest of my life. I've fought that voice. I've battled it, tried to drink it away, sex it away, shove it up my nose, in my arm, and scream it out of me at the top of my lungs. I even went through a period where I substituted other people for myself, and hit them, bloodied them, and tried to do to them what was done to me. None of this worked, and none of this changed anything.

* * * * *

In the early '80s I appeared on The Phil Donahue Show, a sort of male Oprah Winfrey Show, and the first of its kind to explore alternative lifestyles with any shred of dignity. I was invited to speak about what it was like to perform as a woman and live as a man, along with a small group of other entertainers, all of us from Chicago, and all of us female impersonators.

A woman from the back of the studio stood up, folded her arms, and glared at me. Phil, with his glorious, silver hair, and his straight and stalwart spirit, raced up the aisle, microphone in hand. As he stood to the right of the woman, whose gaze was fixed on me, and me alone, she uncrossed her arms and grabbed the mic from poor, unsuspecting Phil. The gesture got applause from the audience and a look of disbelief from the host.

"I'd like to know something... from you," she said, pointing directly at me as I sat on the edge of the carpeted stage in my white cotton sundress I'd picked out especially for the show.

"OK," I said, glaring right back at her. "Shoot."

"I'd like to know which bathroom you use."

The audience erupted in spontaneous applause. Mr. Donahue grabbed the microphone in an attempt to gain control and steer the conversation to a place of education rather than the direction it was obviously headed.

"I think what she wants to know, Alexandra, is...," he said.

"I know what she wants to know, Phil," I told him. "I'd like to answer her."

The woman, who was still standing, folded her arms back across her chest.

"Look at me," I said. "I'm not going to stand up at a urinal in a sundress and wedgies."

The audience sat stunned for a moment, and Phil went to a commercial. I had a chance to speak, and I blew it. It was more important to me at that time to be clever. The woman with the folded arms needed an answer, but I silenced myself and pretended to be Bette Davis.

* * * * *

When I was little, I had no idea there was anything "wrong" with me until people started pointing it out. I knew dressing in my mother's clothes was shameful, although I never really knew why. There were things that were expected of me, things that, through no one's fault, were demanded of me, required of me to do and accomplish. Being the man of the house was not only something I didn't understand; it was something no one ever explained. The odd thing was that I had a brother who was four years older, who innately knew what that meant. He built things, he played football, he had male friends, he got it. And the fact of him was never the problem. It was the actual facts that were the problem. Why is it that he was praised for assembling models and I was shunned for owning a Barbie? No one explained anything. It just was. And it was clear, to everyone but me.

Once I was in my 20s and began my transition, my world changed. And strangely, in some ways, it became smaller. I was no longer able to open my own door, light my own cigarette, or carry large packages. I wasn't heard. My opinions were "cute." I was taken care of instead of relied on. And I played right into it. I loved it. I loved every minute of it. Because now, finally, I thought I had found a place where I didn't have to try quite so hard. I was finally seen by the world the way I always saw myself. That didn't change until years later, when I woke up one day realizing that I was still in a box, confined there not by society but by me, and that all along, the one person with the power to change things was staring back at me every morning in my bathroom mirror. Waiting for society to hand me a rulebook was futile and a waste of time. I was who I was, and like everyone else, I was merely trying to find my voice and proclaim my truth. I was waiting for the world to change; meanwhile, I could have been doing the one thing I'd avoided my entire life: using my voice.

Being what I am isn't any less or any more complicated than being what you are. We live in a country that's founded on freedom -- not one person's idea of freedom, but the pure and cyclical idea of it. Just because I like makeup and high heels doesn't mean I need you to pull out my chair at the dinner table. I can open my own door, thank you. And I'm fairly adept at unscrewing lids, taking out the trash, and shooing away crawly things. (That said, if you're in my house and see a crawly thing, feel free to do the shooing; I'm not that militant.) But if I don't let you know how I feel, if I don't occasionally tell you these things, if I don't say "no" when I need to, or tell you you're hurting my feelings, making me sad, angering me, filling me with joy, or releasing me in a huge and miraculous way, who's to blame when you become insensitive?

* * * * *

Fourteen-year-old Taylor is frightened for the Girl Scouts because she thinks a boy in a dress is coming to infiltrate what she considers to be very sacred female territory. She wants us to join her in her fear by boycotting those insanely delicious cookies the girls sell. Quite frankly, it would take a monumental issue for me to boycott those cookies. Feed me those cookies, and if I had any state secrets, they're yours.

I lived in silence for most of my life and then blamed the world for putting me there. It was both our faults, and it was no one's fault. Taylor is being taught very specific rules by very specific people, and the problem is that those are the only voices she's hearing right now. This isn't about why. I have no idea why I was born transgender. I could quote a bunch of facts and statistics, but so can anyone. All I know is what's true for me. I realize my life can seem like a choice to some people. But if you stop and think, if I really had a choice, if someone actually gave me a choice for my life's journey, I would have chosen one with much fewer obstacles. But Taylor doesn't know this, and she doesn't know this because very little of the transgender community is visible. We like to disappear. We like to make up a past, find a new name, dig ourselves in, and relinquish responsibility. And so Taylor grew up believing women like me are really men in dresses, and that there's a little boy who wants to be a Girl Scout and use the girls' restroom, and it's terrifying and bizarre and doesn't make any sense, and no one's telling her any different. And that's everyone's fault: hers, her parents', her friends', and ours.

If we don't say anything, if we don't realize that all of us are filled with every possibility, that we all have the same dreams, and that we all love and argue and romanticize and demonize, and that we all paint and draw and hammer and drill and cook and take out the trash and pay our bills, that inside, deep down inside, we are innately the same, then Taylor will continue this fight. She'll be steeped in her own fear and listen to the only voices in the room, and the humiliation and confusion will continue. It's up to us. We have to stand in the middle of the room and live our lives large and filled with glory and kindness and understanding. We have to take our pain and our joy and release it with grace and give our gifts to every person we pass so that we can continue on without judgment or fear. We have to understand, to our core, that everyone has a story, and that it's about starting out young to feel the beauty and the power of it, and the need to tell it so we all survive and we can all change and we can all respect each other. We have to say: this is who I am, and this is how I love, and God doesn't judge that. Not ever.

We have to speak.

We have to put the hammer down and let everyone know we'd rather be baking.