Interesting Times: AM I A GIRL?











I am in San Francisco having a conversation with a friend. He has told me he is gay. The other day, when I had a dress on for the first time at a gala meal, I commented briefly on my attire, “Today I decided to dress like a girl.” (Normally, of course, like most women these days, I wear pants.) In response he quipped, “I am a girl, too.” We let that go with all its contradictory meanings and did not analyze it further. Anything goes, in San Francisco. We have several transsexuals at the Broadmoor. A tall, older person who might be a former man—now turned into a woman—joined us recently. “She” always wears skirts, and that alone gives her away; we are liberal, and the difference is worth only a brief glance and a short comment by the onlookers.

In my day, not only did I never hear of transsexuals, I never heard of gays and hardly knew the difference between boys and girls. I had no brothers. I don’t think I knew even what a girl was. Although a correlation was made between me and my mother in dress and appearance very early. Until I went to school, being a “girl” was something of little significance.

Because I was the elder or because of my temperament, my father treated me as a “boy” and treated my younger sister as a “girl.” She was allowed to be silly and to have tantrums. I was no tomboy or potential lesbian, but I liked to be special in my father’s eyes, whatever that was. His idea of treating me like a boy was to assume that I was responsible—later, even responsible for the family, should he be gone. He took me seriously. He assumed that I was more intelligent than my sister and told me things about physics (fulcrums?) and the Big Bang Theory of the universe as bedtime stories. In short, he wanted me to be like him. Obviously, he probably had wanted a boy. I didn’t understand all this, but I felt honored and wanted to live up to his image of me.

Many times in my adult life, I was told by men that I “thought like a man,” as a compliment. I never knew what that meant exactly. That I was logical? Not that men are all that logical. This comment always implied that generally women are inferior beings, and I had escaped that by “thinking like a man.” These were the men who were usually not interested in dating me. The ones who wanted to date me thought I was cute.

As a child, I was girlish enough to enjoy all the frills, velvets, and organza ribbons my mother dressed us in, as somehow the prerogatives of being female. To this day, I enjoy dress in all its forms. New occasions, new places, new people, new loves require new clothes in different cuts and colors, the old bundled off to the Salvation Army. Sometimes I think I was almost like a female impersonator, dressing the part of a woman. I wonder if other women feel that way.

Clothes were a joy and a compensation for the times things didn’t go well. I often thought that it was wonderful that a woman could dress colorfully in a zillion different ways, while a man could not. My opinion about dandies was ambivalent. I sort of like it and I sort of look down on it. Dressing was an obvious upside for being a woman.

Because by the time of puberty, I found out that being a woman was not much fun and altogether could use compensation. Men did not have to bother with messy periods and cramps once a month. To be sure, in the Hungary and the family I was a child in, I was given no adequate explanation of what periods were for, and even if I had, I don’t think I would have been impressed. My mother’s stories of her pregnancies were infrequent and not all that happy. Anyhow, childbearing as a life goal did not seem all that desirable. I had played with dolls, but usually it was puppet theatre, not mommy and baby.

The next phase of being a girl was even more disquieting. Reluctant to tell me the story of the birds and the bees, my mother outsourced this task to my godmother. My godmother dealt with this issue by taking me to see a movie. It was a black-and-white, realistic (verismo), Italian film with subtitles. The heroine was a teenage girl who falls in love with a boy and becomes pregnant. She is so shamed she commits suicide by drowning herself in a lake. I don’t remember whether there was any explicit lovemaking in the film, but I remember the suicide only too well. Being a girl meant being afraid of boys, sex, pregnancy, and death. I was brought up with the idea that premarital sex meant death. Being female was a terrible sentence boy did not have to deal with. It was all so terrible, I was determined to remain a virgin until I married, at all costs. That was not so great, either, since I married young, with a great ignorance of sexuality.

As a teenager, I read books that further undermined my appreciation of being a woman. Hemingway’s A Farwell to Arms made a great impression on me because at the end the heroine dies in childbirth. I didn’t know anyone who’d died in childbirth, but history and literature were full of such stories. It was clearly possible to die in childbirth, and many women had. When I was married and pregnant, I was haunted by the fear of dying in childbirth. By then, medical science was so advanced that most women were not in any real danger of dying in childbirth, although a small percentage did. And still does.

How is one to enjoy the very biology of being a woman, when it is at most lethal and at least extremely inconvenient? Yes, in my twenties, I wished that I could have been male and not have to deal with such things. It seemed terribly unfair of nature to have ANY deaths associated with childbirth and pregnancy. I hadn’t yet heard of transsexuals, but if anyone had asked me, I would have said I’d rather have been born a boy. And that’s not even mentioning the social difficulties of being a girl. Freud thought that women had “penis envy,” and he may have thought of it literally. But, in fact, why not envy boys, since they have been favored by nature biologically? Men are in no danger of dying due to their sexuality.

Rape is a mystery, too. Why did evolution allow it? Couldn’t evolution have so arranged matters biologically that a woman could not be forced to have sex against her will? Or that a man could not have an erection in such a situation? The fact is, nature allows rape. I suppose it is just more diversity in the scheme of things. A woman has to have a generic fear of men. Even husbands can rape. The dangers are real.

The only thing women have that is a biological plus is that they seem to live longer than men. But, who cares about those extra years when most of life, beauty, accomplishments, are pretty much over, and all that old sisterhood is not particularly valued by anyone? When a woman is young and most valued, her life is circumscribed by danger. In old age, people say things like, “One can see that you must have been very beautiful once.”

Of course, sex, when I got to it, was pretty good, pregnancy was actually fulfilling, and although childbirth was worse than advertised, being able to give birth to a child was as much of a miracle as everyone said it was. But did it fully compensate for being a woman? Wasn’t being a woman a handicap to start with that in some cases luck and personality could turn to an advantage of sorts but for most could never be overcome? Was that the best that could be done, if you were born a girl?

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