The Shape of Our Dignity: Shirtless, Just Like My Friends

Posted inCreative Voices

The summer, warmth I eagerly await each year. The heat, my friend. The sun, a familiar adversary; Irish as I am, I burn, not tan. Freckles darken, hair lightens; a cycle that to this day keeps me connected to my child-state naivety. My thoughts of summers long ago still linger. I just put a load of laundry away; shorts and underwear stacked neatly on the bed, left behind from my loving wife after her turn doing the chore. My board shorts once again tucked away awaiting their next adventure. I purchased them last spring because their striped pattern of varying stroke weights and hues of pinks and blues reminded me of the transgender pride flag.

Now as an adult of transgender experience, my clothes purchases are carefully curated and intentional. Often, I feel odd in clothes that once belong to me prior to my double bilateral mastectomy; one procedure of the many I’ve gone through in my medical transition. I was advised about this dysphoric disconnect to things that once helped hide parts of me that never felt like they belonged. For the most part, all of my “pre” clothes are gone, save a few t-shirts that managed to make me feel even more myself than before or are so design nerdy, I just couldn’t bear to part with them.

As a kid, I didn’t know why I couldn’t just wear board shorts while we played in the sprinklers. My other friends did. I mean boys were always shirtless on the Slip-N-Slide. So when my mom yelled at me to come in and put on my swimming suit, I cried.

I wasn’t developed; I was seven years old when she flat out said girls wear swimming suits that cover EVERYTHING. If I couldn’t follow that rule, I couldn’t play outside with my friends. I felt alien in that body, even beyond the weird child we all were at some point in our pre-adolescence. I never saw myself as this “girl” my mom referred to me as.

I hated being classified as girl. I just belonged in the group boy. Yet, as I walked away from friends, defeated, embarrassed, and mad at my mom for not seeing me, I had never hated being called a girl more than at that moment. I thought I had never hated her more for forcing that on me. Turns out she could prove into my adulthood there was still room for that.

I don’t know the moment in which I just bottled up the swimming suit issue. I remember wonderful days in the sun, playing with my friends in their pools and Slip-N-Slides. We’d ride our bikes to the rec center, swim for hours care-free, but always me in the swimming suit that confined me. I know I lived behind masks for most of my life. Some of them happy masks, the kind that make you forget about the worries.

Summers were different as kids, especially in the 80’s. Your parents didn’t know where you were, save the things you told them. They didn’t need to know I was in the field, across the busy road, shirtless, riding my bike with the guys. Or that I was knee-deep in mud of the ponds filled by late afternoon showers, catching polliwogs. My step-dad knew my whereabouts, I always told him so he didn’t worry. He covered for me often.

Even through the internalized pain of living in the cage of my body, I tried to live happy in the things that made me feel connected to my authenticity. I was a creative kid. I wanted to craft and make things. For the most part I was given that room and space to explore that. It was easy for my mother to connect with me on that level. It may have been one of the few things that kept us connected.

There were so many other things that she didn’t want me to love. She always called them the boy things. My saving grace with my mother was often her own mental health issues she faced. She had her own monsters, that often protected me from her on-slot of harassment about me looking, acting, trying to be like a boy.

Those are stories she owns. The way they intersect with mine is great reason why I try to remember the good and bad, and recall these memories. I use them as a way to try and understand her. We don’t talk. We haven’t had a single conversation since, I believe March 2021. That last conversation wasn’t pleasant either. Her narcissism and greed was stated in her first sentence about the message I had to pass on from my aunt. Mom’s disconnected herself from much of her siblings, and us kids, even if not on purpose.

My older brother says that I just need to love her, knowing she is who she is and the way she is. I have to allow her to continue to see me as the way she sees me. I disagree, but for the sake of keeping an open relationship with him I just agreed to move forward. She’s held to a religious belief I’ve always known as ingrained structural sexism and misogyny.

While her actual thinking and politics support feminism and women’s rights, she’s hard-pressed and a seemingly brainwashed ideologue. She must be a certain way to find the glory of her Christ; a dogmatic theme of Mormons so entrenched in the teachings of their gospel.

Compounded by religion, dysfunctional family, and my dysphoric depressed state, I’m quite surprised I made it out. I’m not unscathed. I am still sifting through what I thought were ruins of my childhood. I am, however reminded that there were good things to be thankful for. I hold to what I loved, as I connect them with my life now.

I loved the dirt. Critters. Biology. Hanging with the guys. Avoiding my mother. Wearing my board shorts, shirtless; just like my friends.

Sean Childers-Gray is a designer, writer, trans advocate, and educator. This essay was originally published on his Substack, The Shape of Our Dignity.

Header image by the author.