Guest blog post: My body dysphoria by Stella Perrett
I am pleased to publish this guest post by Stella Perrett, whom I first heard about when she was cancelled by the Morning Star because a cartoon of hers that the paper had published, had offended a few fragile souls. I blogged about it here. I also reviewed her book here. This is the very moving story of her unhappy childhood. Her website is here and her brand new youtube channel is here.
Do Dysfunctional Families create Dysphoric Children?
I was 11 when I decided I would never have children. I would not put any other child through the misery of childhood I had suffered. I kept this promise to myself for the rest of my life, until I got safely past child-bearing age.
“Gender-Dysphoria” in the 1970s was a term known only by specialist doctors. My Guardian-reading, Liberal-voting parents had certainly never heard of it.
Dr D.H. Montgomery, Director of the Gender Identity Clinic at Charing Cross Hospital and his colleagues, had been treating their patients, (75% male, the reverse of today’s situation at the Tavistock Clinic), since 1965. An organisation called the Beaumont Trust, founded in 1971, existed to counsel men then known to everyone as transvestites (and still exists).
And that was it. To the general public, the subject was a mystery. The nearest we came to it was watching British comedians on TV who wore drag as part of their act Stanley Baxter, Dick Emery, Les Dawsonor pantomime dames on stage, in the Christmas panto.
But no one ever pretended they were women. We laughed at them at their parodies of women – and part of the laughter was because they were unable to look like women and it was so obvious they were men. Very uncomfortable looking men too, squeezed into dresses and stumbling around on high heels, with grotesque makeup. They were figures of fun.
I see and hear feminists today saying that the British Panto/comedic tradition of men dressed as women (and women as the Prince, the gender-bending went both ways in Pantomime) was always meant as an offensive caricature of women. But that is not how I remember it. We always knew we were laughing at their complete inability to imitate women.
My brother was not an overtly masculine child. He loved rock music and taking motorbikes apart but he was not sporty. He was a disappointment to our father, who had the typical dual personality of the psychopath: charming to strangers, abusive and authoritarian to his family. He fostered that whole “pilllar of the community” thing. When my brother stumbled around the football field in the rain, our father would shout from the touchline, “Come on, you sissy!”
It was me who eagerly went to watch football with him and collected stickers of every team in the British isles. It was me he took to see “boys” films in the cinema – Tarzan and cowboy films. I vividly remember being taken by my father at age 9 to see “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” – with it’s gay overtones, which would have gone over his head and which I was far too young to recognise – and feeling very uncomfortable at an almost-sex scene in it.
I realised even at my young age that was the main reason my father had wanted to see the film and maybe wanted to expose me to it deliberately. I was substituted for the son he actually had but didn’t appreciate.
He took us to the same barber for short-back-and-sides. I was allowed to dress in jeans, get dirty, leave the dolls in the cupboard and play with Action Men. Instead of girls’ comics, I asked for and got American war comics, Tarzan, Dracula, science fiction.
My mother was a victim of coercive control, a modern term only added to UK Law in 2015. Even as a child, I could see she was a depressed and intimidated woman. She chain-smoked and rarely smiled. I never saw any affection between my parents, only shouting and silence. Although very bright and artistic, she had abandoned her early interests as a young woman – she was a local clay-pigeon shooting champion, when few women were involved in that sport. She had travelled abroad as a “Queens Guide”, the top tier of Guiding, and had enjoyed it very much.
But I believe she cut her University life short to look after her dying father – an Edwardian concept of the utility of the unmarried daughter. Her potential was wasted. She exchanged her possible life for one of endless drudgery in marrying my father. I suspect she suffered from post-natal depression after the births of myself and my brother. She took refuge in housework and ‘good works’.
My mother had no automony. She once told me that she didn’t know if there was any money in the house if the “Man from the Pru”* came calling. She did not drive and never went out anywhere alone. Limiting someone’s financial ability and controlling their movements is typical of coercive control. I felt sorry for her but, because she did not protect me against his abusive behaviour, I also resented her for her weakness.
One day, my father came home from work, came into the living room, looked at us lying on the floor watching Star Trek on TV and said, “Don’t think you can do that when you’re 18”. As a child, you take pronouncements like that very seriously. I decided I would make sure I was not anywhere near him or his house by the time I was 18.
The couple of times I tried to speak about the bullying at school, he just laughed. I don’t remember any sexual abuse – I suspect he was too much of a coward bullies are. I do remember him exposing himself to me and saying, “What are you looking at”?
He insisted on bathing me and washing my hair, when I was old enough to do both myself. When washing my hair, he would deliberately pull it painfully. He used to put me in scalding hot water until I screamed with pain.
Maybe that was abuse? We would say so now.
My Mother colluded in it, so I thought this was how all parents behaved. I found my schoolfriends’ houses very strange by comparison – like visiting people from another planet because in my house, no one smiled, laughed, kissed, or cuddled their parents or siblings.
I was so alienated from my family that sometimes when I walked home from the bus stop after school, or any time I was walking home, I had a strong recurring vision that when I turned into my road, my house would have vanished and there would be only empty fields. I felt alone, like I would always have to achieve things by just my own efforts.
So in this atmosphere, I grew up believing – convincing myself –- that I was a boy. No one told me any different, I heard the word “tomboy” and just assumed it was their way of describing me.
My mother told me that I was always independent. On my first day at Primary School, she said I threw a tantrum because I wanted to go on my own, not with her holding my hand. When she asked me if I wanted a bicycle, I pointed to a rank of gleaming motorbikes and said, “No, I want one of those”!
At Primary school
I was bullied constantly and struggled to make friends. I reacted by being the ‘class clown’. I was always the one who disrupted the lessons by throwing the textbooks out of the window into the mud. I got into fights with boys in the playground, which I always lost because of my disability. A psychiatrist might have had something to say about that but I was not to see one until my teenage years, by which time I was already a “criminal”.
My mother kept me educated but ignorant by keeping me out of school a lot as an “invalid”. She was over-protective of my disability and took me for lots of medical check-ups. She had plenty of books at home. She bought me “The Lord of The Rings” for my 8th birthday. I read it in three weeks. My reading age was seven years ahead of my actual age – another red rag for the bullies.
I did not query the idea that I was a boy. I fully expected to grow up to have a beard, be six foot tall, grow muscles and join the Army at 18. This was so obviously the polar opposite of what I was actually like – five foot nothing and disabled, that it’s hard to know how I sustained it. By reading American comics, probably.
My mother encouraged me to join the Brownies, and later the Girl Guides; the adventurous aspects (camping, orienteering, going on the Ten Tors Expeditions on Dartmoor) validated the “masculine” personality I had developed.
I was traumatised by my first period. I had been told nothing, by parents or teachers. I was terrified I was bleeding to death. It happened at home and I remember my mother just laughing. Now I understand that to be nervous laughter but as a child, it seemed just dismissive. This extraordinary, central event in my life was trivialised and laughed at. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she then told me I would have to put up with this event every month for the rest of my life.
After that, I tried to ignore my schoolmates’ chatter about how their breasts were growing, fashion and boys. I continued to dress as a boy as much as possible and invented reasons not to wear the girl’s school uniform, not to do girly stuff at school.
Nowadays all this would be called primary gender dysphoria.
By the time I reached puberty, it was blindingly obvious that I wasn’t a boy, even to myself. My earlier belief had evaporated, leaving behind only resentment.
I have recently read Nimco Ali’s book (published 2019) “What we’re told not to talk about – women’s voices from East London to Ethiopia”. The ignorance about their bodies of some girls in backwoods communities in Africa and the Middle East, was no different to my ignorance, growing up in a “civilised” country, to middle-class parents, with all my so-called “white privilege”.
I had visual and aural hallucinations, I cried a lot in secret. I saw my future as a huge black mountain, which I somehow had to climb. At the summit, I believed, was the magic age of 18 and freedom.
…was a nightmare because there my life was dominated by organised gangs, whom I spent most of my time trying to avoid.
It was a rough school in a good area, with a good reputation. It had acres of sports fields, 2000 kids, shiny science labs…and a probation officer on-site with his own office. He was kept constantly busy with the naughty kids; thieves, bullies, rapists and arsonists, whom he represented in local juvenile courts and packed off to the nearest Approved School.
Any slightly autistic, quiet, disabled, artistic child like me was beneath the radar of the teachers. Their interest in your future was non-existent. They either did not notice the bullying or tacitly encouraged it.
The teachers were ageing hippies. Fifteen-year-olds joined them for cider-drinking sessions in local pubs in the lunch hours and after school. Our married Head of English was more or less openly having an affair with a sixth-form girl, which was treated as a huge joke by the other teachers. (Years later he became Tony Blair’s Labour government’s education adviser and this scandal came out and he lost his job).
I learned very little there, except how to skive off and drink beer in secret, sowing the seeds for decades of alcoholism.
When they herded us into the science lab one day to watch that film of a baby being born, I was among the ones sat at the back, laughing and kicking our heels, ignoring it, except for occasional horrified glances at the screen, and giggling.
I continued to behave like a boy. I did a “boys’ subject”, Technical Drawing. I liked “boys’ sports”: boxing, football, motorcycling. But because of my disability, I was deemed not capable of the more exciting activities like school trips, canoeing, athletics, or swimming. My resentment at these restrictions festered, especially when I saw my brother being allowed to take part in them.
To control the headaches, backaches and misery of my periods, I persuaded my mother to get the doctor to prescribe me the contraceptive pill. No one told me what effects this might have. I guess it suppressed my oestrogen and gave my natural testosterone more of a chance, which may have enhanced my feeling of inner “masculinity”.
No one ever told me that it was not wrong or unusual for a girl to reject the extreme femininity they were expected to adopt and saw around them everywhere. The endless fawning around boys. The girls’ magazines like Jackie, which glamorised girlie clothes and behaviour. School dances, which I avoided like the plague. The constant talk of going out with someone and marriage.
It was a confusing time. Male pop stars dressed androgynously. Male footballers wore long hair. Men played at looking like women – without the misery we had to put up with – and were lauded for it. Just like today. The internet has only increased their visibility 100%.
I rebelled by wearing clothes, which might have labelled me a Goth (all black, leather, chains, Dr Martens) if there had been any other Goths around to recognise me! I finally met and made friends with one, in the relaxing, but bizarre, surroundings of the mental hospital I was in at age 16!
This resulted in my father’s angry comment, “You can’t wear black for the rest of your life”! To which I replied, “Watch me”!
I fantasised about killing the bullies at school, and my father. I thought about death and suicide every day.
Being disabled was a large part of this but I have since wondered: Could this constant frustration and rage have been anything to do with using the pill without a break? Certainly it has never left me, except that after the menopause I seem to have calmed down slightly!
In order to change my appearance, so I did not look like my Father’s side of the family, I wanted dental surgery to cosmetically repair my over-bite. I pestered my mother to request this from the dentists who made my braces (it was a fad for parents to make children wear braces in the 70s, almost like a fashion accessory). I was refused, on the grounds that my bones were still growing, and they could not perform such surgery until after I was 25.
This is interesting, since children today are being okayed for drastic “trans” surgeries from 16 onwards. I eventually had both jaws broken and re-set in my early thirties. A major surgery, which took months of painful recovery.
It’s interesting to compare my desire for cosmetically altering facial surgery with the modern cohort of girls with gender-dysphoria, and their desire for surgeries, which similarly separate them completely from the persona their parents brought them up with or desired for them. You can’t do much more of a “F…you” to your parents than wanting bits of you removed or altered, to physically make you no longer the child they raised and remembered.
By the time I was 15 the bullying became too much and I carried a knife to school for protection. I didn’t make it past the first weeks in the Sixth Form. I dropped out and went to what we call “the school of hard knocks” instead – psychiatric hospital and then prison. It was for a minor offence, which nowadays would have led to probation or a short time in a young offender’s institution.
But I was so desperate to escape from my adolescence that I successfully hammed it up as a mad psychopath in order to get locked up for as long as possible, so that I could safely reach the magic age of 18 and my longed-for “freedom” and autonomy. In those days, Prison Governors could, and did, add days or weeks to your sentence for minor disciplinary offences, so you only had to refuse every order to get a longer time inside.
Nowadays, I would have been hamming it up as a “boy”. Teenagers are good at acting out their delusions.
The four years I spent in those establishments as a guest of Her Majesty were the happiest of my life up to that point.
To cut a long story short: I rode motorbikes (my childhood ambition), spent 20 years in the construction industry, travelled abroad on my own and presented as androgynous all my life. In my 20s I campaigned for Gay Rights during the AIDS crisis, sent my hard-earned cash to the women and children fund of the 1984 Miner’s Strike and mixed with lesbians and feminists in London.
I had to endure several abusive relationships, including escaping domestic violence, taking a man to court and getting him convicted in my 40s. It wasn’t until I reached 50 that I found a nice man to settle down with, who also never wanted children and I finally beat my alcoholism.
I’ve tried various types of therapy over the course of 30 years: none of them worked. It’s only now I’m post-menopausal (without HRT – no extra oestrogen for me, thank you very much!) that I feel as “masculine” as I ever wanted to feel when I was young. I can finally look in the mirror and see the person I thought I was, as a teenager. Would today’s availability of “transing” drugs, hormones and surgery have helped me? No. Because my body dysphoria did not mean I would have been “cured” by doing more to imitate a boy than I already did, wearing their clothes and doing “boy stuff”.
Some actual counselling as a teenager would certainly have helped, not “Oops, carrying a knife for protection? Do Not Pass “Go”, go straight to mental hospital”! But by the 70s, state schools no longer had the traditional mothering presence of the school matron, who used to provide a private office and a comforting ear for unhappy children to talk to.
As an adult, I have had many rewarding experiences. I’ve achieved things I wanted to do, seen places I wanted to see, I’ve gained qualifications. I’ve run a business, I’ve had recognition as an artist.
I have been a proud union member all my working life and a union activist and representative in my workplace, until I retired in 2020, after my public cancellation. I’ve even made friends. Something you never think, as a disturbed teen, you will achieve.
Yes, it’s been tough. But life itself is tough.
The ‘cure’ for me was not medical intervention – the cure was very simple and something, which no one ever explained to me, something which is available in abundance, to all of us: TIME.
British terms: ‘Skive’ to bunk off school.
‘Man from the Pru’ (the Prudential) a visit from the Household Insurance collector
‘Do Not Pass GO’ reference to the family game Monopoly. “Do Not Pass GO-Straight To Jail”!