PREVIEW

GIRL IN THE DREAM: STEPHANIE (SYDNEY) CASTLE HEAL, A TRANSGENDER LIFE STORY

CHAPTER 1

The Dream

I was born at Cornerways, a small maternity home in Meols, while a raging snowstorm blew outside… It was December 28, 1925, and snow had been expected with the coming of Christmas. My father, Percy Heal, had arrived at Meols railway station from his business in West Kirby…and had trudged through the snow to Cornerways… After seeing me for the first time he then had to face the far longer walk back into Hoylake to their new home at 2, Clydesdale Road…As Percy said…”I was pretty anxious to see my first-born child. And there you were. My little son.”

(The House that Percy Built, Syd Heal, 2010: 46)

Dreams are ephemeral. Fragmentary and transient, they do not always make sense. Usually, you do not even remember them when you wake up. I understand that. But, not so with this dream. That is why I say this one is unusual; an amazing dream that has stayed with me for many, many years. I was only about four and a half years old but I remember every detail. Upon waking, still snug in my bed, I was mystified. How could I be dreaming about a girl and then looking in the mirror see my own face surrounded by her hair? How am I a girl in my dream when I have been told I am a boy? I just cannot understand. I think perhaps I have become the girl or she has become me.

Figure 1: Cornerways

I remember very clearly the details of our house at the time of the dream, particularly my bedroom. Typically at that time in England, semi-detached houses had two full bedrooms. One pointed out to the front and the other one looked out to the rear. Those were the two main bedrooms and then there would be a smaller bedroom over the front door. Behind that was space for the staircase, the landing, and the bathroom, a typical three-bedroom semi-detached house. Our house was a little bit bigger. We had a wing added on at the back and because it was a corner house, we had four bedrooms, one of them in the little wing at the back.

Figure 2: Number 2 Clydesdale Road

There are pictures in my book, The House that Percy Built (2010). If you look at the picture of our house—Number 2 Clydesdale Road—you will see a little bay window over the front door. That was my bedroom. That is where the dream happened on a night such as now when we have such beautiful weather. The house faced west and was very close to the seashore. So, we often got brilliant red sunsets coming over the Irish Sea directly into my bedroom, turning things pink temporarily while it was at its greatest intensity. I was sent to bed far too early in terms of my age. I should have had another hour up to tire me out because I was a bundle of energy and, of course, I could not sleep. On nights like those, I would go into the little bay window. It had a broad window ledge and I could sit there and watch the sunset. If I was bored and there was still lots of heat from the sun, I used to make spit bubbles on the window ledge and wait until the heat of the sun popped them. The bubbles would pop and little bits of spittle would fly out and dry up. This was something I would do with some frequency. You can imagine a boy of four or five, with his head pressed down on a shelf-like windowsill, laying out bubbles like a hen lays eggs.

My memories of gender confusion—although I certainly did not know what that meant at that age—come back in perfect detail, even to what my bedroom and my bed looked like. It was an old style chain-link bed. The mattress lay on top and formed a sort of saggy hollow. It was quite comfortable actually, almost like sleeping in a hammock. Beds in those days were not rigid like they are today. Before box springs were invented, a feather bed was the standard for comfort. Because my father was in the butcher trade, he had access to a huge supply of feathers that were used to fill the mattresses. And all the pillows in our house were filled with down. The down was made from ordinary feathers that had been treated; the soft vanes cut off and the stiff shaft thrown away. If we got into a pillow fight, it was always a gamble that the ticking (the outside skin of the pillow) might give way and then there would be masses of feathers all over the place. I think it only ever happened once but that was enough to teach us a lesson about feather pillows.

I particularly remember the wallpaper in my bedroom. It had a pattern with blue and pink flowers, floating lilies, and there might have been swans in the background as well. It was a typical wallpaper of that period, a bit overdone and boisterous, a type thought suitable for a nursery. My mother and father were quite expert at hanging wallpaper. They used something called sizing. They put flour in it and stirred it up in a big bucket. Once it got nice and smooth, they brushed it on the wall with a wide brush. Then, they brushed it on the wallpaper and put the two together. They had to get it right at the top, otherwise, once it was squiggly, they could not pull it apart too easily. They only had a limited period of time to work with it. My parents were quite accomplished and they went through the wallpapering exercise several times. By the time I grew up, tastes had changed and people wanted bare walls. Wallpaper had gone out of fashion.

The night of the dream, I went to sleep and dreamt about:

A beautiful girl sitting in an old wooden rowboat in the centre of a calm pond…probably four or five years old, her blond hair drifts in curls over her shoulders…a light breeze lifting it in fine tendrils, reddish highlights picked out by the morning light…wearing a light-coloured dress, white or possibly pale blue, she is sitting quietly in the boat, the sun dappling the water…a few leaves scattered over the surface…no one else is around, just the two of us…I draw closer…she turns and I can see her features more clearly…I want to speak to her but don’t. I am drawn to her…to the peace and tranquility that surround her, her beauty, her serenity, her wholeness. Then, the dream shifts. Now, I am looking into a mirror and there is my own face surrounded by those same reddish-blond curls.

Figure 3: The Far Side of the Moon cover 2014

In the dream, the girl‘s hair was curly with little wavelets, not unlike the picture I had done for the cover of the most recent book I wrote, Far Side of the Moon (2014). In other words, there was a good quantity of hair and it was full-bodied. I remember it as more or less shoulder length, maybe a little longer. In the Doc Zone film[1], they showed a picture of a little girl in a blue dress. That was clever because in my dialogue I believe I said that the girl in my dream was wearing a pale blue dress and when it comes to colors, I guess blue is my favorite. That was clever of them to pick up that detail and that choice of picture was a very good one. It very closely approximated my memory of what the girl in the dream looked like. As a result, I was not surprised when I saw that picture. It was so close to the mark.

As nearly as I can remember, the dream was a friendly scene. The girl might have waved at me but I do not remember. The truth of the matter is I was not sure where I was or what was happening. It was a three or four stage dream. At first, I was looking at the girl in the boat. Then, I was looking at her on the shore, not in the boat. There must have been a transition because I was looking in a mirror and the girl‘s face was looking back at me. Finally, it was me with long hair, flowing down both sides of my face. At the end, I remember thinking “That is me.” Because it did look like me and the change of scene made me feel certain, as certain as I could be, that I was identifying with her in some way. At that age, you only have a limited understanding of things when they come through to you as a glimmer. Then, at some point, the dream faded away. But when I woke up early the next morning, it was still very fresh in my mind. The whole thing probably lasted for only a minute or so but it stayed with me then and it is still with me to this day. It is burned into my memory. I think the message in the first part of the dream was that I liked girls and that is why this particular girl appeared in the boat. Some years later, I thought perhaps the girl might have been my best friend’s sister. Rosemary was a beautiful girl. She was about four years older than me and the first girl that I ever fell in love with. She never knew that I had a crush on her.[2] But at the time of the dream, I did not know Rosemary so I cannot be sure who I thought the girl was. Then in the second part of the dream, the message reversed to me; that I would like to be a girl or that I was going to be a girl. This part of the dream endures as a kind of talisman that I have held closely all these years, not only as a representation of my gender dysphoria but as a first glimmer of possibilities for gender mutability far beyond my understanding at that time. This is going back a long way, almost 90 years. Still, it is remarkable how many people I have met who say the same thing: that the first glimmer of gender dysphoria came when they were around four or five years of age. For me, the frequency of such an experience suggests that there is a factual basis for early recognition of gender dysphoria. It should never be a subject of disparagement, especially among young children.

For many years, I accepted the dream as my first memory and earliest awareness of the feminine side of myself and I have spoken of the dream as my first hint of transgenderism.[3] I have no recollection of thinking about these issues as a child and the dream seemed to come as a complete surprise. But recently, I have revised my thinking. I now recognize that the dream, although a pivotal and steadfast point in my life, was in many ways a natural outcome of what was happening at the time. It was a product of my infant brain trying to make sense of experiences and feelings that led up to that moment. If dreams are a logical sequence of mental activities that occur when you have been thinking about something intensely, then the sum of those thoughts comes to life in dreams. Clearly, I was struggling. After all, at the time of the dream, I was hardly old enough for conscious awareness of the conflicting aspects of my personality that were emerging. But even at that early age, those conflicts demanded reconciliation, especially given English social norms and expectations for gendered behaviour and presentation in the first third of the 20th Century. When you are dealing with a subject that exercises your memory and emotion, there are always going to be thoughts and experiences that are overlooked or forgotten and need to be prompted. On reflection, I recall things people were saying amongst my family members and relatives, my grandmother and people like that. They are just snippets that remain in my memory but when I put them all together, I can see how they may have led to the dream. Not that anybody knew the words transsexualism or transgenderism, or recognized that such a condition existed, but looking at it retrospectively, while the dream sequence in my memory seemed like a clap of thunder—the point at which it all started—it really was not. Instead, it was the gathering together of a number of minor incidents from my early childhood that coalesced in my dream.

Figure 4: Syd Stepping Out c. 1930

 I have had several very critical dreams that shape my thinking on a number of issues but this dream was significant. When people hear me speak of it, they often ask for clarification. How exactly did I interpret it? For me, there is nothing particularly difficult to understand. It was just a dream. Depending on your religious slant, you might say it was God or the Creator sending me a message that my plight was understood. I see a lot of significance in that because after the dream it seemed as though everything started to flow, even though it took many years to reach a conclusion. Some people make remarks like, “You are going against the word of God”—a statement I have often debunked. Certainly, I prayed for a change. I worried, “How will my friends and relatives react?” We all have sensitivities. It is no use saying, “It does not worry me. I can do whatever the hell I want and be damned to the rest of the world.” But it does not work that way. In the end, I believe my dream was a message saying, “Go ahead with a blessing.” At least, that is my interpretation. Obviously, I was anticipating that answer so I suppose I could be accused of interpreting the dream in that way because that is the way I wanted it to be. But, who is to say? If I had taken a negative view and interpreted it as, “I should not do this,” the probability is I would not have gone through with gender reassignment. I would never have proceeded. But the nature of the gender dysphoria animal is that it is recurring. It is something that recurs in your head whether you like it or not. It will come at odd moments when there is no expectation of it. She will reappear: that feminine spirit wells up.

There is a photograph of me taken in the summer of 1930, the summer my youngest brother Colin was born. In the picture, I am walking very purposefully, wearing long pajamas with little bootie shoes. I remember those little pajamas and those little slippers had a kind of ankle strap that came around onto a button. That is about the age I was when I had the dream; about four and a half, certainly not over five. That is just how I was at that time. I look all boy. No question about it. Similarly, in the picture of me with my mother and father (Figure 8), I cannot see anything feminine in me at all. It is boy, boy, boy, all the way. The funny thing about this dream is it is one of the very few that has stayed with me as perfectly as it has done, right down to almost being able to date it.

Whenever I have told the story about the girl in the dream, I have described the boat as being on the duck pond in the local park near where we lived. It was a typical wooden rowboat that could be found on the beach down at the foot of the street. The pond inevitably had leaves floating on it, and there were always lots of ducks. My two brothers and I used to sail our little boats there. If we were not sailing them on the seashore, we would sail them in the pond. But on the day when I had the dream, we were not sailing boats because that was before I was old enough to have boats. So, probably the rowboat was incidental, although boats have always been an important part of my life.

Figure 5: Dad, Syd, Mom c. 1926

My first real love was steam engines but almost simultaneously I started to take an interest in ships. I was very enthusiastic about them from an early age. This goes back probably to my very earliest years of perception, perhaps even as early as two years of age. I noticed these things and got very excited about them. I was born in a town called Hoylake, which is not far from Liverpool in England. I was the eldest of three brothers. We used to see all of the ships going in and out of the River Mersey and there were smaller boats on the foreshore, fishing boats and yachts. My mother liked to go down to the promenade, only a half a block away from our home, for a walk in the afternoon. I must have been very young because I remember sitting in my first little stroller, a seat that folded up. I never see them anymore. Nowadays, there are all sorts of elaborate perambulators but this was a little trolley made of canvas and steel rods that folded up neatly and could be carried onto a bus. They were popular in England, even when my own kids were young. I do not know what my mother did with Geoff, my younger brother, because he was not along. He was just a baby and she must have left him in charge of somebody else.

Invariably, my mother would meet another young mother also pushing a perambulator and they would stop and chat. The kids would be bored silly if they did not have a snack. That is when I first started to make a noise about ships. If she did not turn my stroller in such a way that I could see the water, I got really mad with her. I would be screaming, “Turn the buggy around!” Well, I did not actually say the words—I was too young—but that is what I was trying to say. I just wanted to be able to look at the boats on the foreshore and the big steamships in the far distant background. I did not care what she was saying to the other mother. I wanted to see the ships. I was quite content to sit there watching the tide come in and out, the boats rising and falling and the steamships on the horizon with tons of smoke coming out. In those days, they were all steamships, so they left a lot of smoke which intrigued me to no end. Later, when I was a little older, I would ask my mother questions, baby-type questions, “Why this?” and “What is that?” She had no answer because she did not really understand. She was not really sure what my point was. She would say, “Yes, that is a smoky ship.” “Yes, that is a sailing ship.” She did not know the answers and she used to laugh about it with her friends. She would say, “This boy is driving me crazy with incessant questions, all on the same subject. This boy of mine is absolutely crazy about ships.” One woman looked at me and said, “I think he is going to be a sailor,” which proved to be true.

Figure 6: Hoylake promenade 2005

That is what happened. I joined the Navy in 1943 and I did quite well. I rose from an ordinary seaman to become a lieutenant in a matter of less than four years. From being an untrained sailor when I started, I had command of a ship at the age of 20, with a crew of twelve. I really enjoyed my time in the Navy. It was very educational. There were many things that I learned and would never have experienced otherwise. But the Navy has an extremely male aspect that caused me to wonder why I had not been born a girl. Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, this question was always with me, the result being two extremes in the same person. I do not know what the connection between the two is exactly—if there even is one—but it seemed that I had to go to opposite extremes in order to truly enjoy a complete life.

That was the nature of my first brushes with ships and my love of ships parallels my gender history. They seemed to be as old as each other although I do not think they were necessarily related. Perhaps it was just the timing of things. Nevertheless, I believe that my love of ships kept me a more masculine child. Any feminine fantasies that I had were internal and they were kept that way—all in my mind. I never spoke about them. To some degree, I playacted as a kind of defense mechanism and the ships became part of that defense mechanism. I poured my heart and soul into the ships as a diversion from any ideas of effeminacy.

Figure 7: Waiting for the school girls
c. 1928

There is another photograph, just a little snapshot taken in about 1928. My brother and I are sitting on the garden fence at our house in Hoylake. We originally called my brother Brian but later he changed to his middle name when he joined the Army. As a cadet officer, he told us, “From now on, I am to be known as Geoff. It is a more mannish name than Brian,” which struck him as being somewhat babyish. The one person who would not change was my father, who to his dying day always called him Brian. Geoff, was just a small baby at the time the photo was taken. He is about 21 months younger than me and although he was still at the creeping, crawling stage, he was able to climb up on the fence. I do not know how he managed that but somehow he did. The photo was taken before I went to school, so I would have been about three years old, probably a year before I had the dream. I was not having dreams at that point—at least I do not remember dreaming—but I was having reasoning problems. I was trying to reason who I was.

Up on the fence is where we used to go to watch the children going to Hoylake Parade School, which was run by the local council for children up to the age of 14. Basically, it was a school for kids who did not have any special educational attainments and were never likely to have. Instead, they went into different trades: retail, house service or artisan work. The boys would serve apprenticeships as what were called joiners (carpenters) or other kinds of building trades. These were often the children from relatively poor homes with parents who had very little understanding of the educational system because they had very little education themselves. Still, some of them did very well for themselves later on in life.

The primary school that I went to had two types of boys: boys who were from middle class families and boys who came from working class families whose fathers worked on the railway or the docks or other similar jobs. They were never very well off. My father knew a lot of them because they used to go into his shop to buy meat. As a result, we knew all the different families. In a class of fifteen boys and fifteen girls (it worked out pretty much even-steven[4]), six of us were relatively bright while the others were less so. I remember very well that when it came to any kind of discussion, these six boys, including myself, were the ones who asked all the questions and provided all the answers to the questions the teacher asked. The working-class kids, although some of them were very good, were usually very quiet. They seemed a bit overawed by us. There were also two or three girls who stood out. I ended up at the top of the class at the age of eleven, which was when children shifted from the primary school into the secondary school. I went to what they called a grammar school, which was regarded as, if not the top in education, certainly superior to the ordinary elementary schools. Six of us went to the local grammar school and one went to the grammar school in nearby Birkenhead. Out of the six of us,three ended up with commissions in the Army or the Navy. I was one of the Navy ones and my friend, Phil, joined the Army. At least three got commissions and the others became sergeants or similar ranks. One boy was a good gymnast. He went into the RAF [5]and almost immediately became a sergeant because he became a teacher of gymnastics. This was typical of how things went, typical of the kind of society in which I grew up. We went on to the grammar school and we all did relatively well.

Figure 8: Grandmother Castle, Geoff, Mom, Syd c. 1927

Although there are no schoolgirls visible in the photograph, the reason I had climbed up on the fence was specifically to talk to them as they went by. I used to wave to them and exchange childish little conversations. I was attracted to the girls because amongst other things they were nice and spoke to me pleasantly. A girl might say, “Hello” and ask, “What is your name?” “Oh, my name is Sydney.” I used to think it was wonderful talking to those girls. But when the boys came along, I did not like that at all. We would climb down off the fence and get out of the way because sometimes the boys were boisterous and even abusive in the way that boys often are when they are young. They would spit at us and things like that. They were not nice. In fact, they were horrible. I was extremely intrigued with the girls because I thought I was one. I wanted my hair cut the way they had theirs. In those days, this arrangement was known as a Prince Valiant haircut. Named after a famous weekend funny papercharacter, a knight from the King Arthur period, it was a very simple haircut; scissors across, scissors around and just a bit of trimming. That was it. It was also an economical haircut. All the girls wore their hair that way and that was how I wanted mine.

My hair was longish and I am not exactly sure how it happened but I imagine that my father probably said to my mother that it was time I had my hair cut; that I looked like a girl. Of course, she acted on it immediately. That was the day and age when wives were much more subservient to their husbands. When a woman married, she took on all her husband’s faults and failings. My mother was a young woman, only 23 when I was born and 25 or 26 at the time of my first haircut. One day when I was about two and a half or three years old, I was taken to Mr. Young, the local barber. He was a decent older man, very considerate and helpful. Over the years, we came to know him quite well. My mother had known Mr. Young from when she was a girl in the days before the First World War. Beauty parlors were not common and she and her sister had their hair trimmed by Mr. Young at the same time as their two brothers had theirs trimmed. The only difference would have been that Mr. Young was careful to distinguish between girls’ and boys’ haircuts. I was not ill-treated in any sense but while he was cutting my hair—I was sitting on a board placed across the arms of the barber chair—they were chatting and laughing. I thought they were laughing at me and I started to cry.

I did not want my hair cut like a boy but my mother insisted, saying, “You are a boy. You are not a girl. You are a boy.” It was not welcome to me to be told that I was a boy. I had made up my mind that I was a girl and that was it so far as I was concerned. I was so angered and distressed about having my hair cut short that I cried all the way home as my mother pushed the pram with my younger brother in it. I simply could not get it through my head. My first challenge was to understand the difference between the two genders. I thought we were all the same: the only difference was that girls grew their hair longer.  

In the photograph of Geoff and me on the fence, I am wearing a little dress, which seems to support my point about gender confusion. I remember wearing that little dress. It was very common in that far-off period. Mothers dressed their little boys the same as their little girls until they reached a certain age. Boy babies used to wear dresses. They did not call it a dress: they called it a blouse or a smock or a tunic. It was a garment that was basically a blouse with a little skirt attached, which covered the whole torso and made it easier to deal with diapers. The idea was that later, the smock could be tucked into a pair of short pants. There is another photograph taken of me with my mother and grandmother (my mother’s mother) shortly after Geoff was born. In that picture, I am also wearing a short smock-like garment with slippers and white socks. My hair in that photo is quite long and swept over to the side.

There is an interesting little side story about smocks and my grandmother. My grandmother (in the picture) was living in India with her husband, who was working in the Kolar Gold Fields.[6] Several of my mother’s siblings and their spouses joined them there. My mother used to buy Irish linen by mail order from a mill in Belfast. She parceled it up and sent it to our grandmother in India, along with our measurements. The Indian tailors were very good and she did this for many years. Back would come the most beautifully embroidered stuff; little smocks and other clothing items for small children, also bedspreads, tablecloths and napkins. All manner of things of this nature: all made in India. Those clothes lasted us very well. When we were older, she had shirts made for us. It saved my mother an enormous amount of money compared to buying them in the stores. The Indian tailors worked for virtually nothing by our standards. This was in the late 1920s and the early 1930s. There was a depression on and money was not easy to come by.

Years later, when I was 19 and on leave from the Navy, I visited for a couple of weeks with my aunt and uncle at Kolar. Uncle Leslie was my mother’s younger brother and a great favourite of mine. One day, Aunt May said, “Come around the back, Syd. There is somebody I want you to meet.” There was an elderly Indian man, a tiny little guy wearing a white cloth on his head and loose-fitting clothes. He looked a bit like Mahatma Gandhi to me. My Aunt May used a special name to refer to my grandmother, which I cannot remember now, but in effect she said, “Muttar (that was the man’s name), this is Mrs. Heal’s son.” “Ok. Ok,” he said and brought out a greasy little book, thumbed proudly through it and there were all the measurements that he had recorded over the years for me and my brothers. We were known as Castle 1, 2 and 3 because my grandmother was Mrs. Castle. He had added numbers in brackets beside the patterns, little sketches where he had recorded our measurements. He still had them, all those years later. He was tickled to meet the grown man—well, I was not really a man, I suppose, but a grown youth—for whom he had made those little garments 20 years earlier. I thought to myself, “That is pretty wonderful.”

I have often thought about whether there was a relationship between my gender dysphoria and my keen awareness that my mother was anxious to have a daughter. I have heard that there are things between a mother and a foetus that go on in the mental processes, which probably nobody can really explain, flashbacks, intuition or maybe something else. I have heard it suggested that a mother may imprint something on the child’s brain because the child is in direct communication with the mother at all levels, totally dependent during the pregnancy period. In any case, my mother was sure I was going to be a girl. She had hoped that her firstborn would be a girl for the very same reason her mother had when my mother was born. She wanted a girl first because a first-born girl would be a natural for fulfilling the duties of supervisor or teacher for the younger children. In fact, that is what happened. My mother was a sort of surrogate mother to her siblings on many occasions and she grew up with a very strong sense of responsibility. Unfortunately, when I was born that upset the applecart. She was so convinced that she was going to have a girl that she did not make proper provisions for the possibility of a boy being born. She told all her friends to knit in pink because she ‘knew’ she was going to have a girl. In those days, the only difference was in the colour of the clothes. Knit in pale blue or pink, the colour was always the distinction between boys and girls. Since she did not have a girl, the only baby clothes available for me were pink and I expect that I was dressed in pink, at least initially. I do not know that for sure but my mother did say, “After you were born, we had to hurriedly do some re-planning. Very quickly your granny and aunties all got out their knitting needles and were feverishly knitting baby boy’s clothing in blue.” I do not remember because that is going back too far but that little dress in the photo is something I do remember.

I was about 15 or 16 years of age when my mother first told me about her hopes for a daughter; one time when she got into her cups.[7] Her marriage to my father was up and down and there was even a time when she was thinking of divorcing him. My mother told me, “I was considering divorce but I did not have a lot of education.” In those days, in the early part of the last century, it was a foregone conclusion that a lot of money would not be spent on educating girls because they were going to get married anyhow. That was the attitude people used to have. Unless a woman went into higher education—and not many women did—the only option for a girl was either to go into service and work in a big home as a servant, as a lady’s maid or kitchen maid, or go to work in a shop as a shop assistant. It was quite rare to have a daughter go to university and on the odd occasion when women did, they were usually looked upon as being completely straight-laced and no fun at all. Often they looked that way as well; very serious young people. Of course, that has totally changed now. Because my mother only went to school until she was 14, she chose to work in Miss Webster’s bakery where she served her time as an apprentice confectioner. Both my mother and her sister, Elsie, went through an entire apprenticeship after which they virtually ran the business as Miss Webster was getting old and she liked having young women around.

Figure 9: Geoff, Mom, Syd c. 1929

My mother said, “You were meant to be a girl, as far as I was concerned.” I responded “Well, I was obviously a disappointment in that sense. Did the same thing apply to Geoff and Colin?” “Yes, exactly.” she said, “You were going to be Judith. When I was pregnant with Geoff, the name chosen was Margaret,” which oddly enough is his wife’s name. “Colin’s name was going to be Patricia.” She had wanted a girl each time. She never did realize her desire to have a daughter as each of my two brothers came along. She said that each time she would pray that this time around, the baby would be a daughter but then another son arrived. I asked, “Why did you stop?” She said, “I just could not face the idea of another boy; all these boys, a house bathed in testosterone. That was one of the reasons I wanted a girl, so that I would have some kind of relief from all of that. Plus, there is a special relationship between a mother and daughter that is different from the relationship between a mother and son.”

My mother had what I think they called a false pregnancy in about 1935, about five years after my youngest brother was born. I remember that. Even my youngest brother was aware that she was very keen on having a girl. I remember what joy there was in the house when she thought she was pregnant again for the fourth time. I remember one of her friends coming over and they had a little drink to it, a glass of sherry or something. In those days, they did not worry about whether you were pregnant or not. I remember thinking to myself that it would be so wonderful if mom could have a daughter. I heard her discussing it with my aunt. She said, “I hope I am pregnant because I would like to have the daughter that I always wanted.” My aunt replied, “Do not hang your hat too heavily on that because you have said this each time and three boys have been born. It might happen again.” I suppose my mother was devastated by that statement but it was only reality speaking. In the end, there was no pregnancy, another disappointment. For some reason, it did not take. I do not know why. One good thing about her was that she never made any attempt to feminize any of us. Sometimes mothers will do that. They feminize their sons because of their wish for a daughter. I often wondered about that and I think it is probably evidence of her strength of character that she never let it intervene. If there had been another boy, I am sure she would have dealt with him in the same motherly way she dealt with any of the rest of us.

I was old enough, at that time, to start thinking about these sorts of things. On the odd occasion, I even had little chats with her about maternity factors and the business of having children. My mother was a woman I could talk to and discuss things in a sensible way. I learned more about sex from my mother than from my father a hundred times over. By that, I do not mean there was anything untoward or salacious in the questions I asked. Only that I asked her questions that might have been better answered by a father than a mother. My mother always responded to intelligent questions with intelligent answers. A parent really should do that. She answered straight-forwardly. She was not embarrassed to talk about the female role when I wanted to get some understanding of that. If I wanted information about anything, the first person I went to was my mother. If she did not have the answers, she would make a suggestion as to where I could get them. I think that she recognized that my father did not like talking about certain things.

I do not know what the hell gets into people sometimes but my father never, ever discussed sex with me. He never gave any fatherly advice that was useful. It was not just me either. My two brothers had the same experience. He never discussed anything of a sexual nature with me except when I leaving to join the Navy at the age of 17½. He drove me in the car to Liverpool, to the main railway station, to put me on the train for Plymouth, which is where I was reporting for training. His final words to me were, “Keep away from dirty women.” Obviously, he was referring to prostitutes. Well, I never consorted with that kind of a woman anyway but I took his advice and more or less stayed away from “dirty women.” That was the only advice he ever gave me on sexual matters and he never explained anything. I have often laughed over that because it was so incompetent. He did not even know how to explain the birds and the bees.

My experiences leading up to the dream cross my mind with relative frequency and one does not always connect things that happen in childhood into a logical sequence of events. One example that comes to mind happened in 1927 or 1928. My mother already had been having problems with me, especially the screaming match in the barber shop when my hair was cut short and another big fuss when I was put into boy’s trousers for the first time. In the beginning, I revealed my feelings quite innocently. I was probably only 2 or 3 years old when it all started. Clearly, I was confused about gender. I thought I was a girl and I wanted my hair long. For me, the length of hair differentiated the sexes. Moreover, I did not like boys’ clothing. I wanted to wear girl’s clothes. Not in the sense of cross-dressing[8] but because it seemed natural that I should be wearing a skirt like a girl, rather than pants like a boy. I did not really know anything about human sexuality other than what I could actually see. It was an entirely visual thing at that stage of development. I had no knowledge of male or female genitalia other than what I saw of my own and my younger brother from seeing each other naked at bath time. I did not realize there was a difference between females and males in the genital area. I had never seen a female naked and I had no concept of any difference between female and male bodies.

In fact, I had no idea at all what girls looked like until we went to the beach one day when I was about eight or nine. A young girl was getting changed. Her mother was holding a towel up and the towel was blowing in the breeze. Every so often, I could see this naked girl and I could see that she did not have a penis. I said to my brother, “Do not look now, but watch that towel.” He was about six. “What is that?” he asked. I said, “That is a girl. She does not have a dink.” That was my first revelation that girls were different down below. Then, we found a little octopus on the beach that had been stranded by the tide. We cut it up with our spades and buried it. I do not know why but we did. For me, that was all part and parcel of the same afternoon. When we went into the sea to bathe, we were not at all shy about exposing ourselves. I mean, we were two boys and it did not bother us that we were standing there naked. It did not occur to us that a girl might look and think, “Oh my goodness, there is a boy. He has a penis down there,” or whatever they might have thought.

I suspect what happened was that in one of the arguments I had with my mother about being a girl, she must have said, “You are a boy and when you grow up, you will be like your father. If you were a girl, you would grow up to be like me.” I had a lot of difficulty accepting this. It was a terrible disappointment to me when my mother insisted that I was a boy. I am sure she had real worries about my conflicting gender ideas. In the end, when she ran out of ideas about how to stop me insisting that I was a girl, she got my father to reinforce it. I do not think my father necessarily saw it for himself because I never pushed any of these ideas with him. But with my mother, I did. Although I loved my mother dearly, at that stage of her life her relationship with my father was such that she told him everything. I quickly got the idea that anything I discussed with my mother, she would pass on to my father. That was not unreasonable. It would have been natural for them to talk together as parents although later she cured herself of that habit and learned to keep things to herself. Particularly when I was growing up, I had secrets I did not want my father to know about.

She must have spoken to him about my insistence on being a girl. Perhaps while they were lying in bed at night, she might have said to him, “I think that our Sydney has some problems” and she probably told him what she thought those problems were. Unfortunately, he was a very reactionary type of guy who figured that punishment was the best way to knock this idea out of my head. He had pretty firm ideas. He had been brought up in the tradition in which the father was the head of the household. His word was the law and he applied that belief in his interactions with us. A spare the rod, spoil the child attitude. He usually did not punish us physically. A threat was usually all he had to make to have an immediate effect. Although I did learn to fear him because of one very simple thing that he did, which was to smack me on my legs whenever I misbehaved. But this time, when my father learned of my behaviour, he took quite a severe stance. In a harsh tone of voice he said, “You have to accept the fact that you are a boy! You are not a girl! You are a boy and you will grow up to be a man like me!” I remember quite well. He put me over his knee, pulled down my pants and gave my bare behind a good smacking, which resulted in immediate tears and considerable distress on my part. He said, “Forget all this girl nonsense! You are not going to grow up to be like your mother! You are going to grow up to be like me!” And he impressed this on me with some physical force.

Even as small children, if we were distressed or crying, we were told, “Big boys don’t cry. Quit whining.” I remember crying for a long time after that spanking. I was very distressed. It even affected my attitude towards my mother, at least temporarily, because I felt like I was a black sheep; that nobody wanted me, that nobody liked me. I felt as though I did not have a friend in the world. My attitude toward my mother quickly repaired itself in just a matter of a day or two. But at first, after the big spanking, I felt that I was alone in the world. Moreover, I thought my father was terrible. What he could not understand was that I had nothing else to measure myself by. I found the girls attractive and thought I was one. I found the boys distasteful, because they were distasteful. In fact, they were little buggers.

Gender dysphoria, as it clearly was, had a very early root but that single act shut me up. There were no further manifestations of me wanting to be a girl that I revealed to my parents after that. Anything that went on in my head, stayed there. It did not come out. That was the start of many years of secrecy and that was a watershed point in the way I felt about my father. After the spanking, I never really loved my father. I always had this antagonism in my head towards him. I did not trust his motives. I disliked his attitude and the way he singled me out for punishment. That did not happen with my two brothers because they had no problems along these lines at all. They were never even aware. They were just ordinary boys, growing up in a normal male world: whereas, I had to act the role to some extent. It was not difficult to do because I certainly did not look feminine. I was very boyish but I had to hide that other part of me away in my head for 60+ years before I finally opened up and started to deal with it.

I know I make my father sound like a bad person. I tend to blame him for a lot of my issues and I think he needs to carry a considerable degree of blame. But having said that, I also recognize that he was typical of family men of that era. He was not really a bad person and we were all very strong-minded. I always felt that he should not really blame us for that because we took after him in that regard. My father’s “no” meant “no” and I have always taken the same attitude. My “no” also means “no.” So, while I have a lot of unhappy memories of my father, at the same time I cannot blame him too much for a lot of his reaction. He was relatively young at the time of the spanking and he probably had no other ideas about what to do. Similarly, my mother did not have much experience either.

I suspect that my parents picked up most of their parenting cues from their own parents and what happened to me, in terms of the spanking, happened to them as children too. Probably for totally different reasons but it happened nonetheless. All they were doing is what parents did in that day and age. Corporal punishment was allowable everywhere. If a mother smacked a child in public and the kid was screaming, nobody would take any notice. They would think the kid was bad, that he had done something wrong. Perhaps, he did do something wrong or made an unwise choice, like the time I stole the plum from the rack at the grocery shop. When my mother discovered me eating it, she said, “Where did you get that?” I told her and pointed to the place where I had taken it. She gave me a damn good smacking on the calves of my legs right in the middle of the high street. I was crying my head off. She went back to the shopkeeper who said, “Do not worry about it. That is fine.” But she said, “No. I absolutely insist on paying for it. This boy has to understand that things cost money; that you do not steal things.” She was right in a way. She was doling out justice in a way that was the standard at that time. I remember many times when kids were spanked in public. It shamed them, really. I suppose in some ways it did teach them a lesson. Still, the lesson I learned from the spanking my father gave me was to keep my mouth shut and say no more about it to anyone.

I see this as a very critical stage in my growing up, beginning from the very first indications of gender dysphoria up to the time when my father punished me. So far as my parents were concerned, my gender confusion got nipped in the bud because they never heard anything more from me about it. But I still used to lie awake at night, dreaming and imagining that I was actually a girl. The culmination of these experiences and the amount of mental anguish associated with them, whether conscious or unconscious, is what I believe led to the dream about the girl. At the time, my understanding of the experience was not as clear as it has now become because I have thought a great deal about it. I have retrieved many memories of that particular era. When the experiences that stick out in my mind are all connected, they form a logical sequence that links my gender dysphoria to my relationship with my father as well as my interest in ships and all things marine. I was a very sensitive child and I became very wary. I tuned in to negative responses, especially from my father. Even at that early age, I recognized that if I wanted to live a normal life, I had better not continue to argue about my hair and clothes. Accordingly, the first thing that went through my head the morning after the dream about the girl was that I had better keep it to myself. As a result, I did not mention it to anyone, not even my mother. Not because I did not trust her—I did, in all other things, except this one— but because I had gotten the message that this was a no-no subject, one that I just could not talk about. If I did it would mean trouble. She would not have known what it was about and she would have wanted me to tell my father. I had no intention of telling him—not then or ever—especially after the spanking. He left me in no doubt that I was a boy and that I would grow up to become a man like him. This was not news that I really enjoyed hearing.


[1] http://www.cbc.ca/doczone/episodes/transforming-gender, shown on August 27 2015, 9PM, CBC-TV, accessed April 2017
[2]  More about Rosemary in Chapter 3
[3] There is considerable discussion regarding the use of this word. Many transgender people prefer not to use it. Instead, gender dysphoria or gender incongruence are preferred. Accordingly, terms such as transgender identity, transgender issues and transgender people are considered more appropriate and respectful, see for example, https://www.quora.com/Is-transgenderism-the-correct-word-to-use-in-regards-to-trans-people, accessed December 2017
[4] Fair and equal competition or distribution of resources, see https://en.Oxford dictionaries.com/definition/us/even-steven, accessed December 2017
[5]  Royal Air Force
[6] Located in Karnataka State in south India
[7] Had been drinking
[8] For a definition of cross-dressing see Glossary at the end of Introduction