Ever wonder why Baby Boomer women are not all hip to gender dysphoria and its complex new requirements? Most of us have had our own bouts of confusion. Being female had so many pitfalls. What Freud called Penis Envy came from varied experiences, most of which proved that we would never be equal to the men who orchestrated our worlds. . . .
There we were, stuffed into Mark’s MGB – Mark in the driver’s seat, Michael in the passenger’s, and I curled onto the shelf in front of the back windshield – headed east across Route 40.
Somewhere between Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Iowa City, Iowa, I got my period. . . . and my first glimpse of what might have been a moment of mild gender dysphoria.
It was April 1966; I was nearly 18. My boyfriend Mark and I were on our way to celebrate in NYC. Our plan was to drive to the city, spend a day, and drive back to Albuquerque in time for the last months of our second semester at the University of New Mexico.
In many ways, the trip was more like an acid trip than real life.
It came about late one Friday night. We were at Mark’s with another friend, a guy named Michael, who had a mad crush on Mark. I was just beginning to catch onto the vibe that Mark was actually more interested in Michael than in me, but I was still a virgin in every possible sense of the word, and while the information processing through me induced anxiety, I didn’t acknowledge its significance.
Mark and Michael were probably stoned, definitely mellow, They had either eaten small portions of shrooms or drunk large draughts of Romilar CF. As one who hated feeling high, I was the designated straight man, so to speak, listening to a staticky jazz station on a transistor radio. A woman’s voice covering Sinatra’s New York anthem caught my ear, and I dissolved into homesickness tears.
Mark and Michael stopped ogling each other to ask why I was crying, and the next thing I knew, we were stuffed into Mark’s MGB – Mark in the driver’s seat, Michael in the passenger’s, and I curled onto the shelf in front of the back windshield – headed east across Route 40.
“ First stop: Iowa City,” Mark announced. “Robin’ll be happy to see us.”
Robin, my counterpart in Iowa City, had been Mark’s girlfriend when he was a freshman at the University of Iowa before his mother tugged him back to UNM, where, thanks to his Zuni ancestry, tuition was free.
A small fact that Mark failed to disclose was that his little car wasn’t actually his. It was registered in both his and his twin brother Kent’s names. He hadn’t told Kent what we were planning, so technically we were committing Grand Theft Auto. But had that occurred to any of us that night, we would not have cared. We were on our way to New York City.
I desperately needed to get away. Spring Break gave me extreme agita, too much time to think. I didn’t know what to do with my growing awareness that Mark was not just a polite young man who respected me too much to ask for you know what. I had no idea what my feelings were and no clue what I should do if I figured them out.
If only, I thought, I were a boy. Or better yet, a man.
I had often felt that I’d have been better off as a guy. I was a big girl – 5’7 “, 185 pounds. When I did dress up, my friends called me a beautiful drag queen, and I took that as a compliment, but I usually dressed as androgynously as my size and shape would allow. For this trip, I had brought my manliest outfits – baggy khakis, oversized sweatshirts, a huge trench coat borrowed from a friend. I could have been my own brother, a linebacker or a shot putter out of uniform.
So there I was in Kansas – or some proximity thereto – without anything feminine. I had entered a time in my life when denial was the only state I could bear to be in, so I was able to disavow any connection to womanhood. How I could have ignored the fact that I’d eventually need feminine napkins and tampons eludes me now, but I was shocked when we made a pit stop, and the mess in my drawers reminded me I actually had an assigned gender.
“I need to get to a drug store. Pronto,” I told the boys as I climbed back onto my perch.
Mark winced. He was inordinately close to his mom and recognized the urgency in my tone.
“Fuck,” he whined. “We’ll. Have to detour off the highway.”
I felt the same rush of humiliation I’d been feeling since my cycles began when I was 9. I muttered an apology before I closed my eyes and wished fervently for a Deus ex machina to swoop in and free me from the bonds of female fecundity. Being a woman was embarrassing. Nothing but trouble. Worst of all, already undesirable to the boy I loved, I had become downright repugnant.
Had I ever liked being a girl? Probably not. My parents punished me for everything my brother got away with. I hated dolls and wanted to be a race car driver. All the male cousins in our family made my mother and her sisters smile; when the boys were around, the tone in my grandmother’s voice turned dulcet. When they left, she reverted to her shrewish self. I was not pretty or delicate, and I could not relate to flirting. No. I hated being a girl.
We stopped at the drugstore in some small hamlet near the highway.
“Get me a pack of smokes while you’re in there,” Mark ordered. “Montclairs.”
“Yeah,” barked Mike. “And a Snickers bar for me.”
I roamed the store for a few minutes before I found what I needed. Then, at the checkout, I pointed to the cigarettes, grabbed the chocolate bar.
“Anything else?” the clerk asked me.
I shook my head.
“That’ll be $5 even.”
I put the money on the counter and, as I turned to leave, I heard him say without any irony in his voice, “Thank you, sir. Come again.”
Every prickle in my uneasy personality stood up in my craw. It startled me that I was angry. How dare he? Didn’t he get . . . .
I opened the door and turned around.
“Thanks, ma’am,” I said in my softest, most feminine purr. “See ya.”
Sixteen hours after we left Albuquerque, we arrived at sweet Robin’s, where she gave us blankets and pillows so we could sack out on the floor of her living room. In the morning, she let Mark use the phone to call his mom long distance.
“Make it short though,” she pleaded. “My parents’ll have a cow if the bill’s too big.”
Mark went into her bedroom to use the baby blue princess phone on the floor next to her mattress. He closed the door behind him, hoping for some privacy.
A female voice shrieking epithets crossed all state lines and burst through the phone into the living room. Then we heard Mark sobbing.
“He is such a little girl,” Michael sneered. “He should ’a’ let you make that call.”
When Mark joined us, he said, “She told me if I’m not back by day after tomorrow, she’ll put out an APB. She already told the tribal cops. She’s not kidding. We gotta go back.”
Michael snorted. “You are such a little girl. What could the cops do anyhow?”
“Arrest us. For stealing the car. You know. Kent can file a complaint. It’s as much his as it is mine.”
“Screw it then,” I said. “Let’s go back.”
We folded ourselves back into the little toy vehicle and buzzed on over to Route I-80.
“No stops except for gas, water, pee,” Mark proclaimed. Everything else would have to wait till we got to Albuquerque.
Only we never did.
Michael was driving. It was well past midnight, and we were a few miles out of Fort Morgan, Colorado on a deserted stretch of highway. It was Mark’s turn to sleep on the ledge, and I was soundly snoring in the passenger seat when a deafening clunk, followed by a throbbing grind woke us up. The car shimmied, then convulsed. Michael pulled over as smoke began to pour out of the engine.
“We gotta get outta this thing,” Mchael screamed, and we all jumped out and pulled as far away from the snorting machine as we could.
“Shit,” Mark said, laying his head on my shoulder. “My mother’s gonna kill me. And she’ll blame you.”
“Me? Why me?”
“You’re a girl.”
He was right. Our escapade ended that night. Mark called his brother.
“You asshole,” Kent said. “Just leave the car where it is. Greg ‘n’ I’ll drive over ‘n’ get it.”
Kent was a certified mechanic. He’d know what to do with it.
Mark, Michael and I hitched a ride into town and found a room that Mark’s mother paid for, and we slept till it was time to catch the morning’s first Trailways back to Albuquerque.
Mark’s mother never invited me back to their ranch. She never spoke to me again.
“That’s what you get,” she told Mark, “for loving a girl.”