Give me a dick or give me death!

Today I am a femme with an inner soft butch, but as a child, I failed to meet the demands of either gender.


Kera Bolonik
September 23, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Women I know, namely lesbians, are wont to inquire whether I'm a femme top or a
soft butch bottom. They ask if I have an inner gay man or an inner straight
woman. Do I like straight-acting, straight-appearing dykes, or do I prefer
more traditional-looking Sapphists?

Never having composed a personal ad, I retort, I possess answers to none of
these questions. "Well," these women ask, "what were you like as a little
girl?"

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One thing I'm certain of: I was never a little girl.

It is not that I was robbed of a childhood. I was very much a kid, a small
one at that. But while other girls my age immersed themselves in play worlds
that included rainbows and unicorns, Barbie and baby dolls, kiddy kitchenware
and cosmetics, I was drawn to boy toys like "Star Wars" action figures,
Matchbox cars, Erector sets and the like. I coveted male privilege. From the
age of 4 until I was 10, I actually prayed to God, Santa Claus, "My
Favorite Martian," Samantha on "Bewitched" -- anyone who, in my mind, posessed
the power to grant me a wish -- for a penis. The boys I knew had license to be
kids, to play with games that were designed for children, not
adults-in-training. I wanted those games. I longed for those privileges. Give
me a dick, was my cry, or give me death.

I hated wearing dresses and refused to put barrettes in my short hair to
relieve my 'do of its androgyny. I was loath to get my nails painted
and would have given anything to trade in my Mary Janes for Chuck Taylors.
This fashion choice, though, was in no way indicative of any athletic
inclination I may have possessed.

As I grew older, my interest in all things "boy" refused to wane. I walked
with a swagger, insisted on wearing jeans, sneakers and T-shirts, and kept
male company. I prided myself on how often I was mistaken for a boy. Although
I was hesitant to do so, I actually had to insist to people that I was, in
fact, a girl -- even though that too felt like a lie. By the age of 11, my
bravado was starting to try my mother's patience. She felt that my
gait resembled that of a truck driver, and despite my compliance in getting
my ears pierced two years before, she wasn't appeased. She
decided to enroll me in a beginner-level ballet class at the Academy of
Movement, along with my hyper-feminine 8-year-old sister, Shana.

I'd seen the girls around school who went to the academy. They were in the
intermediate and advanced levels, had aspirations to a life of dance and
didn't strike me as particularly feminine. When they had ballet after school,
the girls would sweep their thin hair back into severe buns perched atop
their heads. Their bodies were wiry and lithe. Even the older, puberty-age
girls had flat, broad chests, shoulders held back like soldiers and
prominent, very strong thighs and calves. While they didn't exactly walk like truck
drivers, they did strut like ducks. I didn't understand how emulating these
aspiring ballerinas was going to make a girl out of me. These dancers looked
like eunuchs.

So I fought. I screamed. I even went so far as to cry like a girl. But there
was nothing I could do to get out of taking ballet. In addition to my
rigorous regimen of Hebrew School on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday
mornings, and my sixth-grade homework load, I had to sacrifice my Friday
evenings for what my mother referred to as a "lesson in grace." Not that I
had an active social life, but a kid likes to have choices, no? I had a very
bad feeling about ballet, but the check was already cashed by the Academy of
Movement, and money spoke volumes about commitment in our home.

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The first Friday, we were informed that we had to purchase a uniform that
included pink Danskin leotards, pink opaque Danskin tights and pink Capezio
ballet slippers. Toward the end of our eight-week session, we would each be
presented with our very own complimentary pink tutu for a recital we'd
perform before the entire Academy.

I surveyed the room. It was filled with 15 7- and 8-year-old
girls gasping in delight at the prospect of pinkocity. I turned to my 8-year-old sister on my left. Her eyes were gleeful. To my right
sat a big girl who looked a few years older than me. I breathed a discreet
sigh of relief that I wasn't the oldest girl in class. But upon closer
inspection, I noticed that the girl's glasses were at least an inch thick, her dopey smile, unwavering. When she clapped her hands in joy at the
thought of a free tutu, I suspected that she might be retarded. When
she turned to me and cackled, my suspicion was confirmed: she had Down's
syndrome.

When our mother came to pick us up after our lesson, Shana ran to her,
excitedly reciting the shopping list of pink things. I remained silent.

"So, was it so bad, Kera?" goaded my mother.

"I'm not going back there. I am the oldest girl in the class, and I refuse to wear baby pink."

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Then Shana piped up: "Georgie-Ann is 14!"

"See, Kera," retorted my mother, "You're not the oldest."

"Mom, Georgie-Ann has Down's syndrome."

"Oh." My mother was rendered speechless, if only for a moment. "Well, the
class has already been paid for, so you really don't have a choice. At least
you can learn something."

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"Yeah, like you can't get your money back," I muttered.

My mother insisted I give it a chance. She was so invested in my pathway to
grace she actually tried to convince me that I might enjoy it. She knew nothing of the embarrassment I would endure, passing my middle school classmates in their
intermediate- and advanced-hued leotards, while I wore my beginner's pink. I would be voted the official butt of all school jokes. I dreaded my immediate future.

As an incentive, my mother offered to register me for softball in the spring
if I successfully completed the ballet course. I couldn't recall ever revealing
any interest in sports, so the incentive was lost on me. Would it be so bad
to return home after school, and just do my homework? Wasn't Hebrew School enough?

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At first, I complied. I did the pliis and the demi-pliis, learned all of the
positions, performed them as well as anyone else in the class. But when I
caught a glimpse of myself in the full-length mirror, I was mortified. I
stood at least 5 inches taller than most of my classmates. I watched my Dorothy Hamill haircut as it bounced in the air. My
pink get-up, which gathered in rolls at the ankles and revealed the tangle
of my bunched-up cotton panties, was about as graceful as a body cast.

And if that feast for the eyes failed to satisfy my hunger for self-consciousness,
my gaze found its way to the small window in the door, where I discovered
three fellow sixth-graders peering into the classroom, fingers pointing at
me, hands covering giggling mouths. This class, and my presence in it, was so
"gay" -- in the sixth-grade, misappropriated sense of the word. How was I going to face seven more weeks? And how could I possibly show my face at school on Monday morning?

Each week that followed, I devised ways to get out of attending the next class.
My mother would not relent. Fine, I thought. I resolved to take the class
less seriously. No longer would I try to master beginning ballet. I would
resist. I would perform half-heartedly. I would become the class cynic, the
reluctant beginning ballerina.

This only served to get me paired up with Georgie-Ann. While she was trying
in earnest to perfect her movements, I was equally earnest in making mine as
clumsy as possible. Together, we became the anti-Fred and Ginger. I took her
stunted fingers in my sweaty hands and tried to spot her as best I could,
given my new cool and disinterested demeanor. She attempted to return the
favor, but more often than not, one if not both of us ended up on the floor.
I laughed at the spectacle of it all. My amusement was shared by no one -- not
by my seasoned and underpaid teacher, not by the kids in the class and
especially not by my younger sister, who looked at me in horror. Only
Georgie-Ann laughed along with me. And it was when she laughed that I
realized I might literally be dragging her down with me. I had no intention
of mocking her -- I was too self-absorbed to mock anyone but myself. I mean, I
had a job to do. I had to shame my mother enough to lose hope in me, and get
me out of beginning ballet before the recital.

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It was not to be. The impending performance loomed larger with each passing Friday. The tutus arrived via UPS and were handed out two weeks before
the recital. Shana pranced around the kitchen in hers, with her hair wrapped
in Princess Leia-style danishes on either side of her head. I put
my tutu on for my parents, in an effort to prove how ridiculous my developing body looked swathed in infantile, pre-Lycra, limited-stretch nylon. My mom
stood her ground. She insisted that I looked just as she'd hoped.

When the night of the recital finally came, my instructor had enough sense to
put me in the back row of the stage. I mustered all of my courage to look
through, not at, the audience. Sitting behind my parents in the second row
were a middle-school classmate from the advanced level and several other girls
I sought to avoid. My eyes darted around the room, taking inventory of the
audience members who would witness my humiliation. My face alternated between
bright fuchsia and deathly white. And we had only just taken our places
on the makeshift stage.

I don't actually remember what happened during the performance. I can assume
that it passed without much ado; I was just relieved that it was over. I
sauntered over to my parents after the recital, only to learn that my mother
had enrolled Shana and me for another eight-week session, beginning in June,
after softball. Shana was promoted to the intermediate level. Georgie-Ann and
I would become reacquainted with beginning-level ballet.

In a rare instance of consistency, my mother remained true to her promise,
and decided that my dedication to ballet rendered me worthy enough to
register for the softball league. A small reprieve, or so I initially
thought. Here was an activity that required no grace whatsoever. I borrowed
my father's Wilson A-2000 mitt. I got to wear sneakers, a polyester mesh
baseball cap, a forest green T-shirt, jeans. There was only one problem: I was scared
of the ball. I would dodge when it was pitched to me, and run away from it
when it was flying toward my glove out in right field. My teammates hated me.

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My coach tried to teach me to slide between second and third bases, but I was
too frightened to risk scraping my thighs. I ran in hesitant leaps, if I
remembered to run at all. I flinched at the plate when the ball was pitched
to me, even with my batter's helmet protecting me. If I could even achieve a
base hit, I was a guaranteed out. I was plagued with nightmares of
oversized softballs, wrapped in stiff baseball gloves, bludgeoning me to death.
Even as a faux boy, I was Queen of the Sissies. I spent a
lot of time on the bench, praying for rain.

Ballet proved that I had failed to become a girly girl, but that hadn't troubled
me because I knew as much going into it. But my stab at softball demonstrated
that I also fell way short of being an adequate tomboy. Where did that leave
me?

Perhaps this is not a unique quandary of pre-adolescence. But I must confess
that this legacy continues to plague me. While my adult body is undoubtedly
feminine, with curves and fullness, it belies my utter lack of grace and
athletic coordination.

In an effort to work with and not against my sex, I
wear my curly hair just above my shoulders, and my pouty lips are often
slathered in the fine Bobbi Brown products. I boast an
impressive clunky-shoe collection, and two pairs of heels. I wear lacy bras, and own an essential black dress. I even have a knack for accessorizing.

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Yet when I put on a dress, I see myself as a football player in drag.
When I stand naked before the mirror, I half-expect to see a small-framed,
flat-chested, hipless androgyne. Instead, I am confronted with a strange
womanly body, one that apparently belongs to me.

I still walk with a slight swagger, but I can also be spotted wearing a Prada
knockoff purse. After years of studying gender theory and psychoanalysis
and undergoing psychotherapy, I remain at a loss about who or what I am, just as when I was 11.

For the sake of personal ads, bar inquisitors, matchmakers and any other
interested parties, I will venture to say that I am versatile. In bed, to borrow from the
gay lexicon, I am neither a top nor a bottom, but a "side." As an aesthetic, I alternately
confess to being femme with an inner soft butch, or perhaps a femme
top. I occasionally find that I possess an inner gay man, but am equally
inclined to relish my inner straight woman. Like many women, I strive to feel pretty, sexy, captivating and even ravishing, but I also want to feel strong, sexual and in control.

And when I was young, I just wanted to be a kid.

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Kera Bolonik

Kera Bolonik, a writer, critic, and editor, is the executive editor of DAME Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Elle, Glamour, New York magazine, Salon, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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