My grandma used to say that sometimes, when i would whistle. Sometimes, instead, when my whistling annoyed her, she’d say, “A whistling girl and a crowing hen, will always come to a bad end.” But we both liked the other version better.
When I was a child, I was DETERMINED to become a boy. I knew with absolute certainty that I had been a boy in some past life, and that I would grow up to become a boy in this one.
I kind of did, in a way. I make fart jokes; lift weights, (heavy fuckin’ weights, too, none of this 2lb pink vinyl crap for me); drive stick shift– and i’m letting my moustache grow for ‘mo-vember’ (even if i think it’s kinda stupid–mo-vember, not my moustache).
I also go out for walks, alone, late at night; get into elevators even when the only other occupant is an adult male; list my full name in the phone book; and make eye contact with strangers.
When I was 11, I read in the paper about this guy who got an operation so he could become a woman and play tennis in the women’s league. I thought then that if he could do that, I could get an operation to become a male when i grew up. I told my mom. She didn’t like the idea so much, “oh, don’t do that, you won’t want that when you’re an adult”. I was determined, though, as i said before. I kept at it, insisting that I was going to save up my allowance and become a man.
Well, I’m not sure i said “man” or even thought it, I think i might have said ‘boy’. Because I also did not really want to grow up.
Anyway, i was so insistent that she started to cry. She was washing my hair at the time. My mom washed my hair for me until i was quite old. It was a trial, my hair. that was another reason to be a boy. Boys took showers and had short hair that didn’t require hot oil treatments and curling irons and barrettes and braids. My hair was curly and plentiful, but dry and fine. From the time i was about 10, we tried all kinds of things to get it to lie flat (ish). I don’t know why I couldn’t have it short like my brother’s hair.
But anyway. My grandma always said to me, “Erin, you should have been a boy.” and I believed her. For a long time, i believed that I should have been a boy.
When my period came, I was mortified. My mom was all excited. Tears in her eyes again as she gave me the belt and the pad (this was a loooooong time ago). she smiled and cupped my cheek in her hand. When i got the contraption on and called her into my room again, she checked to see if the placement was okay, and said, “Honey, you can tell your dad that you’re a woman now.” and she asked if she could tell her best friend, who lived in the United States now, and was (is) one of my very very favourite grown-ups.
There was NO WAY i was ever going to tell my dad that I was a woman now. It was okay with me if she told Mrs. Lenz. I just wanted the whole thing to go away. It was a disaster every month. all those bulky pads, the cramps, the mess the embarrassment. Everyone would know what those toilet paper-wrapped lumps in the garbage were. I flushed them.
Our septic system backed up.
Mom asked me, in a private moment, to please not flush my pads anymore because they had to call in a plumber to clear out the pipes. I’m sure it was no picnic for him to fish used pads out of the basement. I said i wouldn’t. but then I did. I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to use a tampon, but I finally did when i was about 14 or 15, and then the perpetual plumbing problems (alliteration!) cleared up.
And there was the bra thing. Godhelpme, i did NOT want to wear a bra. I didn’t want to wear a shirt, let alone anything under a shirt. You remember how it felt, when your breasts were starting to grow? How tender they were? Oh dear me. And those “training bras”? what the hell were our breasts supposed to learn wrapped in them? the boys would always go around snapping our bra straps. It hurt, front and back. I was one of the first girls in my class to wear a bra, much as I hated the idea, and I didn’t have any idea of how to resist. I was always trying to keep my back to a wall.
One Friday afternoon, when i was in grade five, i think, our teacher held a dance for the grade five and six kids. I remember those things as fun. We turned the lights off and put records on and danced together, girls and boys and girls and girls and maybe the boys didn’t really dance much. I don’t know that I danced much, either, I was kind of clumsy and goofy. I was walking over to the front of the room, and my friend Karen noticed my bra strap hanging down, and took hold of it. I didn’t notice and kept walking, and then she let go of it when i was half-way across the room. snap! some of the other kids laughed, mocking me. I was embarrassed. I left in tears. why did i have to be a girl? Boys did not suffer such humiliations.
But by that time, I knew that i would be a girl, and not for much longer, either. I was becoming a woman, just as Mom said.
High school was pretty fun. But also a torment. It was a big school, and in the centre hallway, near the gymnasium, where everyone had to pass by at some time during the day, there were rows of benches. On the benches, at any time. but especially over lunch, there were sprawled an array of boys, the jocks. The benches in fact, were called “the jock benches”. the boys stomped their feet in the rhythm of the Queen song, “We are the Champions” and threw coins at the pretty girls. Sometimes they threw pennies at the ugly ones, and threw them to hurt. In my first year of high school , they would yell after me, “is that a boy or a girl?”
I used to wear Wrangler boot-cut jeans, a wide belt with what i thought was a beautiful buckle, kind of like stained glass, in all colours, and polyester shirts with pictures of English hunting scenes on them. Also, often, wide suspenders, mismatched socks and a blue and white striped train engineers cap. Quite the sight. Grade ten, the first year of high school, was also my first year of having contact lenses. I wore them all day, for far too long. So, you know, I looked like I was high, my eyes all red and teary.
Mom was still doing my hair in the mornings. i don’t know why. Neither of us enjoyed the process. Goddamn curling iron. One day in grade eleven, I think, I decided i wasn’t gonna do anything with it. Just wash it, shake it, and hope for the best. That was a kind of liberation. We didn’t have hair gel or mousse in those days. just hair spray. no way i was gonna use that stuff, either. My hair looked just fine, if a bit wild–fine, soft curls whirling around my head. Nobody cared…
I had a boyfriend in Grade 10, he had been my best friends boyfriend and he only went with me ’cause she broke up with him. i didn’t like him very much, but we were both in love with her, so that kinda bonded us. didn’t last.
I learned how to shave my legs and armpits, and i sometimes plucked my eyebrows. then i would look surprised.
by the time i was in grade 11, I was wearing women’s clothing sometimes, and my jeans were tight (remember? in the late 70s you had to lie down to be able to zip up your jeans? remember that?). I often wore my dad’s shirts tucked into my too-tight jeans. I didn’t wear underwear, ’cause i didn’t want panty-lines, but my waist was all bunchy anyway, because my dad’s shirt was tucked into my jeans. And then there were the suspenders. and makeup–oh deargod. I rarely wore makeup, but one day, I tried to hide a zit with a bit of foundation. But then that spot on my face was kinda orange, so I figured i’d better spread it out a bit. consequently, the orange spot broadened. So I added a bit more foundation., thinking that if I could just blend the edges, it wouldn’t show.
I went to school that day with a distinctly orange face, chin and neck. “hey, Erin, are you wearing makeup?”
It was a terrible day.
I could never get the hang of that femininity thing. And i was (am) asthmatic. I always wanted to run and run and leap over tall buildings and do parkour before there was such a thing, and swing from the light posts–but i couldn’t. I tried out for every team, from basketball to volleyball to badminton, and didn’t make a one. When we’d go cross-country running in school, I’d struggle along and come in dead last, hair full of sticks, wheezing and huffing–i got a reputation for being plucky, anyway.
But whatever, i rode my bike or walked the two miles to school every day, most days, and i became all excited about drama. I didn’t have to be a girl in drama class, i could be a mythical creature, a buffoon, an animal or an idea–and i was good at it, the acting stuff. I wasn’t all that comfortable in my body, womanly and wheezy as it was, but i learned how to use it to create art, and I found a gang to hang with. we were into plays and singing in the hallways, and improvising skits behind the auto shop at lunch time. we did plays together with the drama teacher, Steve, and we sometimes partied with him too. That was kind of a no-no. Cool for us, not so cool of him. But he wasn’t much older than we were. He taught us about dada and noh and commedia d’el arte. we did mask work and improv and entered provincial one-act play contests. We traveled to Lacombe and Innisfail and Calgary, even.
By and by, I started to fit in at school. I wasn’t one of the Beautiful People, I wasn’t a jock or a stoner or a party girl or a nerd–i was one of those drama kids. my nickname was “maniac” or “spin”, but it was fine with me, i got attention, and i was left alone at the same time. People liked me, I liked them, and it didn’t matter as much that i was a girl. I didn’t hang with the boys much, except for the two guys who were in my tight little gang. I have a picture of us from that time, we are in a park, the sun lit up our hair, we posed for the camera, Brent dark and brooding, Mark open and friendly, Cathy relaxed and shining, Bonny looks like she’s about to leap into a cartwheel, and i’m in front, on the ground, head thrown back, wearing goofy sunglasses and laughing. I don’t know where any of them are anymore. our paths used to cross from time to time, but not for years now.
They were my friends. we saved each other in a way. I fell in love with Bonny, but i didn’t know it and couldn’t understand it. Intense. Heartbreaking. I only wanted to be with her, even when we both had boyfriends. Then when i broke up with my boyfriend, she started going out with him. I wasn’t upset about that so much, except it meant that I wouldn’t be able to hang out with Bonny so much, and that was one of the reasons I broke up with him in the first place, i think. But I didn’t know what was going on. I only ached, and I didn’t know why until many years later.
My body, the womanly, asthmatic body that i grew into, was not my friend. I was often hospitalized, and more often after i finished high school, and started smoking cigarettes. It’s common, apparently, for asthmatics to become smokers. Kind of like a pre-emptive thing. I want to be able to have SOME control, if i’m not gonna be able to breathe, it might as well because of something i’m doing deliberately.
I know it doesn’t make sense.
When i was 18, I started lifting weights. I loved it. It was perfect for me, I could sit and wheeze until I recovered and pick up the weight again. I didn’t have to chase across a muddy field or a gymnasium floor after a ball a puck or whatever, tripping and sliding and running the wrong way and letting the team down over and over again.
A few months after that, i got pneumonia. I was smoking and drinking too much at the time, which likely contributed to my respiratory distress. My fiance at the time (a man! Shocking, i know. He played bagpipes, how could i resist?) didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t breathe, I was in big big trouble. My mom came. she took me home. Then to the hospital. I was gravely ill.
I wanted to be a boy. Boys were strong, boys became garbagemen and firemen and acrobats and cowboys they got to be outside, riding horses, driving trucks, pulling, pushing and lifting things. girls became mothers and nurses and teachers. They had to stay inside.
When i got out of the hospital, i was all detoxed and very weak. Beginning again. I went to the gym. I went to the gym A LOT. My grandparents were worried i would hurt myself, or that i would not be a real woman, maybe i’d become a lesbian or something awful like that. they never said that, but my grandpa especially implied that such pursuits were not alright for girls. that was mans work, that was.
I competed in powerlifting in the 1980s and 90s. I joined the women’s liberation movement in the 1980s, and lifting weights became a way to train for the revolution. There were years in there that i privileged late shifts on the crisis line and demos and dancing after demos over pumping iron, and other years when drinking took precedence, as well. but those are big stories, best left for posts of their own.
I did, in fact, become a lesbian, I’m sure my grandma knew, though i never told her. If I had, I would have said, “you know, Grandma, when you would say I should have been a boy?”–And she would nod or say, “it’s your deal,” (we played a lot of cribbage together), ” yes?” Then i would say, “I did better than that, I became a lesbian, how do ya like them apples?” (cause she always used to say that kind of stuff–including that little saying that makes the title of this post). She would chuckle, I can hear her now; my grandma laughed with her whole body.
She used to say to me, too, “Erin, don’t ever marry an old country man”. She had married my Welsh grandfather when she was a young widow in the first years of the Great Depression. My beloved grandpa was a difficult man. Jealous and stubborn. A much better grandfather than he had been a husband, I’m sure. He was not violent, but neither was he loving. Anyway, she always warned me not to marry a man from the old country (which old country, she never said), so I think the news that I would surely be spared that would have made her happy.
I think this is the end of this post, but i’ll fill in the blanks by and by. There’s stories of a liberation movement here in this story of a girl who whistles in the darkness. Stories of many women who made space and made noise. I’ll get to them by and by, i promise.
It was powerlifting that reconciled me and my wheezy, clumsy body, and it was the women’s movement, it was radical feminism, in fact, that taught me how to be a woman. These two pursuits weave together a way into a movement of women building a world of women, for women. this movement gave me many examples of womanhood that are not feminine or masculine–and women who were outside, strong, loud and taking up space. Girls that whistle, hens that crow, making our way, wherever we go.
I cannot tell you how relieved I am that there was a still vibrant women’s liberation movement for me to join when i was a young woman. And I’m really grateful there are women who are carrying on the work of this movements’ continued revival because we are nowhere near free, and we can’t let up until we are.
I didn’t become a boy, after all. I learned to whistle.