Elementary school was “a series of tests,” that forced her to learn “to walk a certain way,
to talk a certain way, to wear the right type of clothes,” because her peers tested her. Gwen
remembered:
“One day, all the rage was asking boys to look at their fingernails. If they stretched out
their fingers and looked at their hand from above, that was someone less masculine than curling
your fingers towards your palm. To do the former meant you were a sissy, or a fag, or whatever
term they wished to fling at you. It would also mean you'd likely find yourself targeted for a
beating by the end of the day. Not that I ever seemed to avoid that, anyway.”
Playground gender norm enforcement. Not cute.
By 6th grade, Gwen’s reputation as a cry baby had her sent to the school psychologist.
The counselor tried to coach her to not cry, saying “tears only provide more fuel for the bullies to
hit you.” Adults told her to hide her hurt as she memorized the different routes home she could
run if the bullies ganged up on her.
In middle school, she found a packet of emergency information her mother kept in a file
cabinet. Each member of the family had a folder. Gwen’s was made before she was made and the
envelope was labeled with a boy’s name and a girl’s name, since there were no sonograms in the
1960s. The girl’s name on the envelope was “Wendy,” a common nickname for “Gwendolyn.”
In high school, there was a cache of women’s clothing Gwen’s parents found in her
room. They vanished and Gwen was told, “We don’t want to know.” Adults told her to feel
shame. Then, AOL told her she didn’t exist.
Fear and denial are exhausting to experience every day. Performing a role that was
expected of her was debilitating and depressing. Day-to-day life was an act that forced her to be
constantly on alert and vulnerable. At the age of twenty-five, Gwen was done performing for
others.
She dug through the crevices of AOL and eventually discovered a way to work around
the restriction on transgender people talking about being transgender. For example, the
innocuously named “TV” chatroom appeared ostensibly as a community of “television”
enthusiasts, but to a transgender person struggling to find other people like themselves to talk to,
it was a signal: “TV” for “Transvestite.” This term has faded from the lexicon of appropriate
terminology for the transgender community, but in the early to mid ‘90s, it was an umbrella term
for people searching to understand where they fell on the trans spectrum. Sometimes, Gwen said,
the TV chat would get flagged, and so they “started to use ‘Christine Jorgensen’ (a fairly
famous transsexual woman from the 1950s), or ‘Friends of Virginia’ (a play on the ‘Friends of
Dorothy’ term from early gay culture + a reference to Virginia Prince, an early trans pioneer”.
-Insert sigh of relief and joy of discovery here-
She found people to talk with on AOL and started to explore the language for her
experiences. Of course, given that even on the newish internet the term “transgender” was
deemed inappropriate, how would she proceed in the real world? She would need to talk to the
people she loved. At the top of that list, her fiancée Bonnie. Or, at the time, his fiancée.
Now, you could be thinking, “A fiancée? How does that work?” Let me tell you how it
works. When Gwen talks about Bonnie, her voice, which is usually even and focused, becomes
an octave more whimsical. Pure joy makes her voice filled with a lightness that I can hear all the
way across the country on our weekly calls. Gwen loves Bonnie fiercely.
In late 1991, Gwen knew she needed to tell Bonnie what she had known since she was
three years old but had tried to ignore out of shame. They had met in art class at Pasadena City
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