When I was a child I asked my family to call me Peter. I got it from a nursery rhyme about Dickie birds that my grandfather taught me. It was Christmas 1995. I was three. My mum’s side of the family were staying with us at our house in Muswellbrook. I told them Chloe had gone on holiday with her real family and I was their son, Peter.
I grew up being called Chloe. The Peter thing was only talked about at dinner parties as something cute I did. Or once, Mum made me watch an episode of Oprah about transgender children. This was in the early 2000s before transgenderism had entered mainstream consciousness. ‘I could have ended up like that,’ I said. ‘I guess I grew out of it.’
The first time I fall in love it is with a girl. She tells me ‘if you were a boy you would be my perfect person. You, as a boy.’ I smile and nod. I say, ‘I’ll keep a lookout for a boy like me, for you.’ I work early mornings at a café. On the bus home at 11.30am I think about this and lean my head against the white-lit windowpane and cry because I know she’s not wrong, but she’s not right either.
I get breast cancer. They cut off my breast and immediately make moves to replace it. They put a tissue expander behind my pectoral muscle. I go to my plastic surgeon’s office each week before I start chemo and they use a magnet to find a port in my chest. They stick a syringe through my chest and fill the expander with saline solution, stretching my muscle to make room for the implant they will put in later, in another surgery.
I didn’t smoke. I didn’t have much of a family history. I don’t have the BRCA gene. I look up risk factors for breast cancer. ‘Being a woman.’
I go to Europe. I meet Flore. We talk about the Swedish film We are the Best. She says I look like the boy, Bobo. I tell her Bobo was a girl and she laughs. ‘I watched the whole film thinking that was a boy.’ When I leave France she draws me a picture and on the envelope it says, ‘See you Swedish Boy!’ She walks me to the train station and says, ‘I feel like I am saying goodbye to someone I’ve known a really long time.’
I move to Melbourne. I break down in a doctor’s office about how detached I feel from my body. It’s impossible to make all these medical decisions because I don’t care. ‘Do you feel like a man?’ ‘No,’ I say. ‘It’s like that, but it’s something else.’
I start to see a gender therapist. We talk about my brain and my body as a balloon on a weight. My mind is imaginative, bright, enthused. My physical existence, my body, is the weight dragging it down.
I tell my GP I’m not interested in sex and it’s affecting my quality of life. I don’t know if it’s just who I am or if it’s the medically induced menopause I’m in. I’m lonely but I know that even if I meet someone I won’t be able to give them everything they need. It feels futile even to imagine myself being in a relationship. She tells me there have been trials of women taking low doses of testosterone and it helping their libido. She says, ‘You might not be interested in that. The idea of being more masculine is scary to some women.’ I ask for a referral.
I wait five months for my referral appointment. I read about T online. Women love it. They have more energy, they feel stronger, they want to fuck their husbands. I want this. I am ready for this. I imagine the doctor giving me my first dose straight away. I imagine walking out of the clinic suddenly horny. When I’m called into the consultation room the doctor tells me that I can try seeing a sex counsellor and using lube. She gives me samples. On a packet of German lube it says it’s for use on ‘external intimate areas’. There is a drawing of a vulva on the cold, aluminium packet. ‘I’ve read about women taking T,’ I say. She shakes her head. ‘It’s just too risky for you, because your cancer was hormone responsive.’ She asks if I want to come back to the clinic. ‘Probably not,’ I say.
On the tram home I text my friend. ‘Transitioning with T wasn’t even something I definitely wanted,’ I say, ‘but I liked having the option.’ My friend tells me to keep trying. It took them several doctors to find someone willing to prescribe a half dose.
I tell Flore I want to be known as a non-binary person. She says she understands. She says, ‘Forgive me already if I make some mistakes, cause I don’t know how to conjugate verbs sometimes in English.’ She says in France they are referred to as ‘personne non-binaire’ but she doesn’t know what pronoun is used because there is only a singular il/elle.
A few weeks later I tell Flore I am so glad I met her, one of my closest friends. Even after years apart she is forever my dream girl. Meeting her made me trust life again. ‘And you are forever my dream you,’ she says.
I make the decision to have both my breasts removed. A prophylactic mastectomy and an implant removal. I fly back to Brisbane. My surgeon asks me to talk to a psychiatrist: ‘it’s an unusual decision for a young woman.’ I tell the psychiatrist I think I am non-binary. She tells me she knows what that means because her queer daughter keeps her up-to-date with the terms for gender identity. She tells me there’s nothing unusual about my decision. I say, ‘I’m not even making this decision based on gender. I have one implant and I know it feels like shit. Why would I want another?’ She agrees, ‘they don’t even look like real breasts.’ She says doctors are very conservative. She tells me about a transmale patient she had who grew up in Rockhampton and was treated for psychosis when he expressed feelings of gender dysphoria. She said it took years to undo the damage of conservative medicine. I tell her I grew up in Rockhampton before moving to Brisbane and now Melbourne. She says you’re moving farther and farther south, away from conservatism. She pauses. ‘Don’t move to Tasmania though, then you’ve overshot it.’
Before the surgery I sit in an armchair in DOSA with warm waffle blankets piled on top of me. I am there for hours watching Ellen on mute with lagging closed captions. The nurses’ station is beneath the television. For the sake of anonymity they always refer to patients with the singular, gender-neutral ‘they’. They do so effortlessly. ‘We have a patient who is too tall for their bed so they are still waiting to go into theatre.’ I think about the forms I filled out at admissions. Two options.
After the surgery I feel amazing. I wake up every morning and do a shirtless dance in the mirror. The gathered seams stretch and slide over my ribs before eventually settling into shiny pink scars. I buy new clothes from both departments. I lift up my shirt constantly for friends, even when they don’t ask.
I drive back to Melbourne. I stop at my brother’s house in Armidale. He asks me what pronouns I want to use. I tell him I’m not sure. He says he knows a non-binary person who requests interchangeable pronouns. I say, ‘that sounds like what I would want.’ I think no-one is going to do that. Thomas takes me out to a bar to meet his friends. Throughout the night he refers to me as she, they, and he at random ease. When we get back to his unit I tell him about a party I was at a few weeks earlier. ‘Everyone asked for my pronouns, it was like a progressive utopia,’ I say. I tell him about a cisgirl who asked for my pronouns. ‘I told her they/them. She looked at me and said “They/Them?”, then put her hand on her own chest and said earnestly “She/Her”.’ Thomas and I cringe. ‘Why is that so terrible?’ he says. ‘It’s exactly how things should be and still it’s so terrible!’ Laughing, I reply, ‘I know. I hated it and I don’t know why!’ I drive away the next morning and think how lucky I am that the person I feel safest with is my brother.
In Melbourne, every time I take drugs I take my shirt off and dance. I tell my friend that it feels like people are more attracted to me now. She says, ‘It just sounds like you’re more confident now.’ At my friend’s 30th birthday party I make out with someone, a doctor who lives in Sydney. A few weeks later they send me a selection of studies on testosterone and breast cancer risk. The attached email says, ‘Unfortunately it seems that T causes up regulation of important breast cancer genes and expression. But these articles provide some quantification of the kind of risk you are looking at.’ I think I don’t have any breast tissue now though. Aren’t I exempt?
I need specifically this body to exist. My existence is my thoughts. My thoughts are not female. My body is female. To change my body to ‘match’ my thoughts is to risk my body, which is to risk my existence. My existence depends on treating my body as female. My existence depends on treating my body as female because no-one will study what happens if it is accepted as non-binary.
Sometimes out of nowhere I think, why am I sad? And it will simply be the ghost of a past great sadness. The cancer, the life I could have led. I will read about someone else with terminal breast cancer and feel that I too am dying; the way I felt for months. It doesn’t go away. I remember the feeling too well. A twisted mess of threads. How can I hand that to someone? How can I hand it to someone and say, this is who I am, treat me as such?
Image: Contemporary dancers