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“Did I Simply Think That I Should Behave Like a Girl?”

An excerpt from Jan Morris’s “Conundrum,” her classic memoir of gender transition.

George Eastman House

I was three or perhaps four years old when I realized that I had been born into the wrong body, and should really be a girl. I remember the moment well, and it is the earliest memory of my life. 

I was sitting beneath my mother’s piano, and her music was falling around me like cataracts, enclosing me as in a cave. The round stumpy legs of the piano were like three black stalagmites, and the sound-box was a high dark vault above my head. My mother was probably playing Sibelius, for she was enjoying a Finnish period then, and Sibelius from underneath a piano can be a very noisy composer; but I always liked it down there, sometimes drawing pictures on the piles of music stacked around me, or clutching my unfortunate cat for company.

What triggered so bizarre a thought I have long forgotten, but the conviction was unfaltering from the start. On the face of things it was pure nonsense. I seemed to most people a very straightforward child, enjoying a happy childhood. I was loved and I was loving, brought up kindly and sensibly, spoiled to a comfortable degree, weaned at an early age on Huck Finn and Alice in Wonderland, taught to cherish my animals, say grace, think well of myself, and wash my hands before tea. I was always sure of an audience. My security was absolute. Looking back at my infancy, as one might look back through a windswept avenue of trees, I see there only a cheerful glimpse of sunshine—for of course the weather was much better in those days, summers were really summers, and I seldom seem to remember it actually raining at all.

More to my point, by every standard of logic I was patently a boy. I was James Humphry Morris, male child. I had a boy’s body. I wore a boy’s clothes. It is true that my mother had wished me to be a daughter, but I was never treated as one. It is true that gushing visitors sometimes assembled me into their fox furs and lavender sachets to murmur that, with curly hair like mine, I should have been born a girl. As the youngest of three brothers, in a family very soon to be fatherless, I was doubtless indulged. I was not, however, generally thought effeminate. At kindergarten I was not derided. In the street I was not stared at. If I had announced my self-discovery beneath the piano, my family might not have been shocked (Virginia Woolf’s androgynous Orlando was already in the house) but would certainly have been astonished.

Not that I dreamed of revealing it. I cherished it as a secret, shared for twenty years with not a single soul. At first I did not regard it as an especially significant secret. I was as vague as the next child about the meaning of sex, and I assumed it to be simply another aspect of differentness. For different in some way I recognized myself to be. Nobody ever urged me to be like other children: conformity was not a quality coveted in our home. We sprang, we all knew, from a line of odd forebears and unusual unions, Welsh, Norman, Quaker, and I never supposed myself to be much like anyone else.

I was a solitary child in consequence, and I realize now that inner conflicts, only half-formulated, made me more solitary still. When my brothers were away at school I wandered lonely as a cloud over the hills, among the rocks, sloshing through the mudbanks or prodding in the rockpools of the Bristol Channel, sometimes fishing for eels in the bleak dikes of the inland moors, or watching the ships sail up to Newport or Avonmouth through my telescope. If I looked to the east I could see the line of the Mendip Hills, in whose lee my mother’s people, modest country squires, flourished in life and were brass-commemorated in death. If I looked to the west I could see the blue mass of the Welsh mountains, far more exciting to me, beneath whose flanks my father’s people had always lived—“decent proud people,” as a cousin once defined them for me, some of whom still spoke Welsh within living memory, and all of whom were bound together, generation after generation, by a common love of music.

Both prospects, I used to feel, were mine, and this double possession sometimes gave me a heady sense of universality, as though wherever I looked I could see some aspect of myself—an unhealthy delusion, I have since discovered, for it later made me feel that no country or city was worth visiting unless I either owned a house there, or wrote a book about it. Like all Napoleonic fantasies, it was a lonely sensation too. If it all belonged to me, then I belonged to no particular part of it. The people I could see from my hilltop, farming their farms, tending their shops, flirting their way through seaside holidays, inhabited a different world from mine. They were all together, I was all alone. They were members, I was a stranger. They talked to each other in words they all understood about matters that interested them all. I spoke a tongue that was only mine, and thought things that would bore them. Sometimes they asked if they might look through my telescope, and this gave me great pleasure. The instrument played an important part in my fancies and conjectures, perhaps because it seemed to give me a private insight into distant worlds, and when at the age of eight or nine I wrote the first pages of a book, I called it Travels With a Telescope, not a bad title at that. So I was always gratified when after a few preliminary banterings—“That’s a big telescope for a little boy! Who are you looking for—Gandhi?”—they wanted to try it for themselves. For one thing I was a terrible swank, and loved to focus my lens for them deftly upon the English and Welsh Grounds lightship. For another, the brief contact of the request made me feel more ordinary.

I was intensely self-conscious, and often stood back, so to speak, to watch my own figure stumbling over the hills, or sprawled on the springy turf in the sunshine. The background was, at least in my memory, brilliant and sharp-edged, like a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The sky may not always have been as blue as I recall it, but it was certainly clear as crystal, the only smoke the smudge from a collier laboring up-Channel, or the blurred miasma of grime that hung always over the Swansea valleys. Hawks and skylarks abounded, rabbits were everywhere, weasels haunted the bracken, and sometimes there came trundling over the hill, heavily buzzing, the daily de Havilland biplane on its way to Cardiff.

My emotions, though, were far less distinct or definable. My conviction of mistaken sex was still no more than a blur, tucked away at the back of my mind, but if I was not unhappy, I was habitually puzzled. Even then that silent fresh childhood above the sea seemed to me strangely incomplete. I felt a yearning for I knew not what, as though there were a piece missing from my pattern, or some element in me that should be hard and permanent, but was instead soluble and diffuse. Everything seemed more determinate for those people down the hill. Their lives looked preordained, as though like the old de Havilland they simply stuck dogged and content to their daily routes, comfortably throbbing. Mine was more like a glider’s movements, airy and delightful perhaps, but lacking direction.

This was a bewilderment that would never leave me, and I see it now as the developing core of my life’s dilemma. If my landscapes were Millais or Holman Hunt, my introspections were pure Turner, as though my inner uncertainty could be represented in swirls and clouds of color, a haze inside me. I did not know exactly where it was—in my head, in my heart, in my loins, in my dreams. Nor did I know whether to be ashamed of it, proud of it, grateful for it, resentful of it. Sometimes I thought I would be happier without it, sometimes I felt it must be essential to my being. Perhaps one day, when I grew up, I would be as solid as other people appeared to be; but perhaps I was meant always to be a creature of wisp or spindrift, loitering in this inconsequential way almost as though I were intangible.

I present my uncertainty in cryptic terms, and I see it still as a mystery. Nobody really knows why some children, boys and girls, discover in themselves the inexpungeable belief that, despite all the physical evidence, they are really of the opposite sex. It happens at a very early age. Often there are signs of it when the child is still a baby, and it is generally profoundly ingrained, as it was with me, by the fourth or fifth year. Some theorists suppose the child to be born with it: perhaps there are undiscovered constitutional or genetic factors, or perhaps, as American scientists have lately suggested, the fetus has been affected by misdirected hormones during pregnancy. Many more believe it to be solely the result of early environment: too close an identification with one or the other parent, a dominant mother or father, an infancy too effeminate or too tomboyish. Others again think the cause to be partly constitutional, partly environmental—nobody is born entirely male or entirely female, and some children may be more susceptible than others to what the psychologists call the “imprint” of circumstance.

Whatever the cause, there are thousands of people, perhaps hundreds of thousands, suffering from the condition today. It has recently been given the name “transsexualism,” and in its classic form is as distinct from transvestism as it is from homosexuality. Both transvestites and homosexuals sometimes suppose they would be happier if they could change their sex, but they are generally mistaken. The transvestite gains his gratification specifically from wearing the clothes of the opposite sex, and would sacrifice his pleasures by joining that sex; the homosexual, by definition, prefers to make love with others of his own sort, and would only alienate himself and them by changing. Transsexualism is something different in kind. It is not a sexual mode or preference. It is not an act of sex at all. It is a passionate, lifelong, ineradicable conviction, and no true transsexual has ever been disabused of it.

I have tried to analyze my own childish emotions, and to discover what I meant, when I declared myself to be a girl in a boy’s body. What was my reasoning? Where was my evidence? Did I simply think that I should behave like a girl? Did I think people should treat me as one? Had I decided that I would rather grow up to be a woman than a man? Did some fearful legacy of the Great War, which ravaged and eventually killed my father, make the passions and instincts of men repugnant to me? Or was it just that something had gone wrong during my months in the womb, so that the hormones were wrongly shuffled, and my conviction was based upon no reasoning at all?

Freudians and anti-Freudians, sociologists and environmentalists, family and friends, intimates and acquaintances, publishers and agents, men of God and men of science, cynics and compassionates, lewds and prudes—all have asked me these questions since then, and very often provided answers too, but for me it remains a riddle. So be it. If I have evoked my childhood impressionistically, like a ballet seen through a gauze curtain, it is partly because I remember it only as in a dream, but partly because I do not want to blame it for my dilemma. It was in all other ways a lovely childhood, and I am grateful for it still.

In any case, I myself see the conundrum in another perspective, for I believe it to have some higher origin or meaning. I equate it with the idea of soul, or self, and I think of it not just as a sexual enigma, but as a quest for unity. For me every aspect of my life is relevant to that quest—not only the sexual impulses, but all the sights, sounds, and smells of memory, the influences of buildings, landscapes, comradeships, the power of love and of sorrow, the satisfactions of the senses as of the body. In my mind it is a subject far wider than sex: I recognize no pruriency to it, and I see it above all as a dilemma neither of the body nor of the brain, but of the spirit.

Still, for forty years after that rendezvous with Sibelius a sexual purpose dominated, distracted, and tormented my life: the tragic and irrational ambition, instinctively formulated but deliberately pursued, to escape from maleness into womanhood.

Courtesy of New York Review Books; Copyright © 1974, 2002 by Jan Morris