Hazel McHaffie

gender dysphoria

Image and appearances

It’s 4 years now since I published Inside of Me, but body image and transgender issues keep popping up above the parapet, and hauling me back into that world of tortured self-doubt and secret longing.
– In the last few weeks we’ve had the BMA saying that people should be able to gain legal recognition of their changed gender without the input of a registered doctor, and indeed with no more than a witnessed sworn statement. As things stand, you need a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, and a report from a registered doctor detailing treatment received, and proof that you’ve lived for at least two years in your chosen gender, and intend living in for the rest of your life.
– But subsequently the government announced that plans to allow transgender people to self-identify as the opposite sex have been shelved; they feel that the current system means that ‘proper checks’ are in place. However the current fee of £140 is to be reduced to £5.
– Then, the transgender community, already incensed by JK Rowling‘s comments about what a woman is, have trained their sights on her yet again, because her latest Robert Galbraith novel, Troubled Blood, features a serial killer who dresses in women’s clothing.
– And then there’s the mother of a dead transgender 18 year old, campaigning to honour her daughter’s dearest wish: to have children. The youngster changed gender from boy to girl in the teen years, but had sperm frozen at 14. The mother is planning to launch a landmark legal case to preserve the sperm (now due to be destroyed) to enable her to have a grandchild via a donor egg and a surrogate mother.

Just a few of the news items. But of course, each one brought the complicated ethical issues very much back into my mind, and that in turn, led me to a book near the top of my tbr pile – For Today I am a Boy by Kim Fu.

One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful woman.
One day I’ll grow up, I’ll be a beautiful girl.
But for today, I am a child. For today, I am a boy

This truncated quote beautifully sums up the essence of this brave novel.

Peter’s father only ever wants a son: ‘In a family, the man is king. Without you, I die – no king.’ But two daughters come first, before Peter, followed by another girl. With only one chance, Mr Huang is determined to make a real man of this longed-for boy, forcing Peter into male ways from an early age. He teaches him how to shave when he’s 6 years old, tears anything female out of his schoolbooks, approves and rewards brutish male behaviour, makes sure his son doesn’t do ‘women’s work‘ like the dishes. Peter is acutely aware that his sisters get much more lenient treatment.

But Mr Huang is steeped in Chinese traditions about ancestors and what is right. Appearances matter. He has high expectations of his only son, even whilst being unfaithful to his own wife. Peter describes his father’s mistress, the neighbour Mrs Becker,  beautifully. She was …
‘Pale and thin and seemed to quiver at the edges, like she was made of water. She had limp red hair. Her freckles were a handful of sand tossed in her face … light shone through her skin to the blue veins along her forehead … her smile looked unstable.The structure of her face couldn’t sustain the weight’ … and when she betrays Peter – ‘a jittery nobody, the human equivalent of onionskin paper.’
Mr Huang is appalled at a deep level by Peter’s ‘differentness‘, his ‘weaknesses‘. his proclivities. He must at all cost keep them secret, not shame the family, not let down his ancestors. And even when facing his own imminent demise, he reminds Peter he’ll still be watching him ‘from the other side.’

With this threat haunting him, even excursions into the female world carried out behind closed doors are fraught with fear and guilt for the conflicted Peter. When he puts on a wig, pouts his lips, looks in a mirror, ‘I felt my father staring through my eyes, the grotesque image in the mirror, the halfsie freak. The grandfather I hadn’t known, the great-grandfather, all watching as my father strove not to shame them, every day until he died. All of them watching me now.’

In this fragile tale, shot through with melancholy, Kim Fu powerfully captures the young child’s only-partially-understood longing to be other than he was. The ‘nightmare years‘ of adolescence. The ongoing desperate struggle to live up to the expectations of others – gang members, pals, work mates, family. The terrible loneliness of not being understood. The pervasive malevolent forces that would crush people like Peter Huang, learning slowly and painfully the real meaning of being a woman. The terrifying consequences if he names his inner conviction.

He becomes increasingly aware of consequences outside his battles with his own body, too; the larger fight against hatred and prejudice. ‘It’s not just about me and my body. There were marches, vigils, hate crimes, unjust laws, a world that needs education. There were other people like me … there were forces that had crushed us.

I was struck by the essential loneliness or unresolved doubt. Do any of us really understand what goes on in the lives and minds of others? Books like For Today I Am a Boy help us to sidled a little closer, understand a little better.

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