Did you choose to dress like this?
At first I thought not. I imagined
that if you had you would have let your hair
grow long, worn it loose or in a pony-tail.
Not looked so sad.
I imagined you had a sister,
maybe two, one at least older than you,
who teased and taunted you,
treated you as if you were not a boy at all,
not a real boy, but a sissy, a foolish
half-creature; dressed you up in their cast-offs,
stuff that was no longer cool or that they’d outgrown,
a starter-bra, a tweenage makeup set,
took pictures of you on their iPhones,
posted them on FB, YT, everywhere,
When I was a child I too was dressed as a girl,
not by my sisters, by a friend called Denny –
she did it properly, kindly, and I loved that –
but also – not kindly and not properly –
by a girl called Stef who bullied and mocked me. She
was my age, only bigger, heavier, stronger.
She used to twist my arm up behind my back,
smear bright red lipstick on my lips,
lead me around like that, make me give her
my sweets, my pocket-money,
reported me when I nicked a songthrush’s egg
from the cabinet in the classroom, said
‘You’ll get the cane from Mr Jones for that.’
(I did) and made me do her homework for her,
or copied mine, and when a teacher noticed said
I’d copied hers; got me a reputation
in the neighbourhood, at school and even
at home for being a sissy, being lazy,
disobedient, a thief, a reputation that has
dogged me all my life.
She told all the older girls at the co-ed
boarding school she’d been sent to and so
by some ill chance was I that back at home
I dressed as a girl and all these older girls all
coo-ed and said I was a pretty boy,
much too pretty to be a boy – one
wished she had eyes like mine, another eyelashes
like mine, another lips like mine, another
legs like mine, and at weekends
they took me into their common-room
and played with me as if I was a doll,
then took me out with them to be
the cute little ball-boy for their tennis matches.
And they all came to watch me swim
in the indoor pool, dancing in the water, doing
synchronised swimming all by myself, for there was
no one there, boy or girl, who could swim
as I swam, dancing in the water. Showing off.
At home there was the beach, the open sea.
There I could get away. But not from Stef.
Sometimes she followed me, stole my clothes,
and when the sun went down and I came out
I found only a little frock.
I looked around. No one was there. Oh,
I could walk home dressed in it,
but she might be waiting for me, her and
some of the boys, Kevin and Cliff, and Ray.
So I ran back into the sea and swam
in the moonlight among the mermaids till
the moon went down, then put it on –
it was pretty – but where did she get it,
she never wore pretty things like that –
and darted home in the shadows through empty
lamp-lit streets to my mum and her big
wooden spoon, which hurt like hell
but not so much as a punch on the head from Cliff
or Kevin picking me up and chucking me into
a rubbish skip or – the worst – Stefie
bringing her knee up hard between my legs
and leaving me curled up, whimpering, on the ground,
wishing I was dead.
For you, I’ve decided now, there is no Stefie,
no nasty bullying sisters or cousins.
Things have changed. Now no one minds
a boy being dressed like that, no one will beat you
for it – not grown-ups, formally, at any rate.
Bullies might, of course – and have, I think:
I’ve seen the look in your eyes before,
but that was in a mirror. Now
no one minds that someone – your mother? –
chose this path for you; they admire them for it,
study anew their own more docile,
biddable sons or brothers, note
the way they walk, the slender arms and legs,
the length of their eyelashes, the full lips,
wonder which one would look pretty in pink,
and cute in a frilly apron as he helped
with the housework while his far from biddable sisters
train for their chosen (erstwhile masculine) sports …
I could give you advice like “Don’t do as I did
and let the bullies have their way with you
in the changing-room at school, young cocks
erect, smooth and hard as wood” or
“Don’t let anyone push you into being either
a pretty girly-boy or a macho football-player
against your will; you be whatever you want to be,”
but I am a man of the twentieth century,
a stranger in this gender-fluid world
where no opinions may be aired or even held
but those of the liberal and gender-fluid,
and I would be accused of hate-speech.
(Hating the LBGTQIAs?
Me? What nonsense! I was lost somewhere in
the middle of that unfortunate acronym
before it was ever invented, before most of these people
were born.) And I would be pointed out as a pervert,
a dinosaur, a man you should never speak to,
a man you should avoid at all costs:
to him, they would say, you are simply a boy in a frock.
Any boy who ends up in a frock
is not simply a boy in a frock.