The Torture of Being a Tomboy

When I was young, I knew I was different. I hated wearing dresses. Dolls did not agree with me. I liked to roughhouse with my brothers, not sit still and have my older sister wrangle with my curls.

Getting my bearings at 26

Our large Irish family consisted of six kids, which included two sets of twins. So much for the rhythm method. We were poor. We were physical. We played football in the streets, and pickle in the house. Sports became my language of choice, and I spoke it fluently.

In grammar school, any game with a ball came easily for me. I loved the competition against the boys, and thankfully nobody messed with me.

When I was nine, things started getting a little dicey. I was watering the lawn when a gang of kids rode by.

“Hey kid, can’t you afford a haircut?” they shouted.

Clearly, they thought I was a boy, with my Beatles haircut, a practicality orchestrated by my mother. I ignored them and continued with my chores.

I went inside the house and told my mother what had happened, but she was too busy trying to make ends meet to pay me any attention. Herding six kids was hard enough, and as long as we didn’t have any brushes with the law, things were ok.

In junior high, things got worse. The accolades that I had earned in grammar school didn’t count anymore. Other things were now expected of me. A whisper of hair on my legs and other places began to show. One of my brothers told me I needed a training bra. What was going on and why was my anatomy defying me?

I didn’t want to shave or put my boobs in bondage. Nylons felt like I was an encased sausage. Why couldn’t I just play sports and be left alone? The rules had changed and I didn’t like them.

And then there were boys with their hormonal yearnings. They began looking at me differently. I was no longer their sports buddy. I was now an object worthy of pursuit.

At slumber parties, there were sex games, and I was expected to participate. Spin the Bottle, Seven Minutes in Heaven, and similar games were regular activities. I faked a few kisses and attempted to fit in.

Getting felt up, making out, and wearing mini-skirts were now expected if you wanted to blend in. It was all a part of joining the adolescent club. I remember my friend in ninth grade who was extremely popular with the guys. She was a 38 D. Obviously she had developed early, and was a real hormone hit. Not me. I had other things on my mind.

From an early age, I was enamored with my female teachers. At eight years old, I remember looking up the skirt of Mrs. Shonack. I loved seeing her garters and the top of her nylons and feeling a funny pulse in my abdomen. I even got jealous when her husband came to pick her up from school.

At 15, I had a horrible crush on my choral teacher and used to leave pathetic poems on her car. She was a dead ringer for Jennifer Aniston; her long blond locks creating wet dreams for me at night.

And then it 18, I got my virginity out of the way, with both women and men. The first guy I slept with did nothing for me, reminiscent of that Peggy Lee song, “Is That All There Is?”

But when I slept with my first woman, it unearthed a craving like I had never imagined. I knew from that point on that things would be different.

In college, I compensated by having a litany of boyfriends. I would often date three or four guys at a time. The guys thought I was easy. But sex with men was boring to me. I preferred a game of tennis.

The turning point came in 1973 when I was a camp counselor at Camp JCA in Barton Flats, and I received a letter from my mother.

“When you get home, I want to talk to you about your problem,“ it began.

I wasn’t sure what she was referring to. Was it my gay lifestyle, premarital sex, smoking pot, or something else? Apparently one of my girlfriends had sent a postcard to the house revealing my secret. I dreaded going home.

The stern look on my mother’s face was firm evidence of her shame. She was crushed. Mental illness was already rampant in our family and now this.

Like most parents, she blamed herself. Was it because there was no father figure in the house? Wasn’t I nursed long enough? Perhaps it was some wayward gene from a distant aunt that had determined my fate.

I tried to tell her that it wasn’t her fault; that I was just born this way, like having blue or brown eyes. She wasn’t convinced. She just pretended it was a phase and that I hadn’t found the right guy. I’m sure she prayed when she went to church.

In college I finally decided to come clean with my friends, family and my boyfriend, David. He was sweet, thoughtful, with his long hair reminding me of Joni Mitchell.

My mother was crushed. What would the neighbors say? I’m sure she feared that her friends would blame her for my amoral decisions. And then things got worse.

In 1977, my stepfather entered the picture. When I brought my girlfriend to Thanksgiving dinner, he proceeded to get drunk and pull me aside.

“I don’t like your type here,” he snarled.

I knew he was referring to my girlfriend and me and wanted us to leave. As we exited the house, I glanced back at my mom who looked at me helplessly. It was a new marriage for her, and she was incapable of doing anything to defend me.

Over time, my stepfather seemed to tolerate my lifestyle, although I’m sure beneath his false bravado, he probably thought I was infected with some sort of contagion. All it took was a few beers before his animosity would surface. Any minority was the target of his wrath.

In later years, I had a high profile job in sales that required a fair amount of client entertainment. Being “out” was not an option. I had a few guys that were my “beards“ who would accompany me to sporting events and dinners where I was expected to bring a date. They understood my need for secrecy, and I provided the same for them.

It has taken me many years to accept the fact that my lifestyle is OK, thanks to the encouragement of my partner of 27 years. But I don’t take these hard-won freedoms for granted anymore.

You never know when things could change.

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