Allow me to re-re-introduce myself…
CW: discussions of depression, self-harm, gender dysphoria.
I think I was about 12 or 13, I can’t remember the specific age cos it gets mixed up with the school Year. I was in the boy’s changing rooms getting ready for P.E. when I realised something. Everyone else’s arms and legs were silky smooth and hairless whilst mine were in the middle of growing bushels worth of thick hair. This fact confused me, made me anxious, like I was a weirdo freak sticking out from the pack in the worst way, that last one of which being something I didn’t need the additional help with. I didn’t know what to do but I knew that I didn’t like it, both the feeling of sticking out and the fact that hair was growing all over my legs. Later that night, I noticed that my mother used a razer whenever she was in a bath to shave the hair off of her legs and reasoned to myself that I needed to do the same thing. After all, if nobody else in my class had hairy legs like mine, then that must mean they too shaved all the hair off.
I got into the bath after mother was done, did my usual hair-wash, then reached over and grabbed her razer. Now, I hadn’t talked to anyone else about my insecurities over hairy legs nor had I any idea of how to shave legs to begin with – this was just before our house had consistent easily-accessible Internet you didn’t have to share around a single dead-slow laptop – but I attempted to plough ahead regardless. Within five minutes, I had jammed the razer, caused considerable scraping pain to myself, and managed to only take a very minor chunk of hair out of the very bottom of my right leg (just before it turns into the foot). Mother was already getting suspicious due to my usage of the bathroom being longer than is typical (her raging paranoia and infantilising trust issues are not recent developments) and I realised by this point that I was going to need help. So, I called her up and asked how I’m supposed to shave these legs. She was extremely displeased and, after freaking out at me for ruining her razer, explained that boys just get hairy legs when they go through puberty, that everyone else in my class will also get them in time, and that they were nothing to be ashamed of.
I accepted this explanation, since my Asperger’s reasoned it made logical sense, though I didn’t particularly like it and got out of the bath. To this day, the spot on my leg where my aborted shaving attempt occurred still hasn’t grown back all of its hair.
This was not the first time I felt a rather deep-seated loathing about my sense of self. Even as a child, I felt a strange ill-fitting relationship with media, toys, clothes and activities more typically coded or gendered as being for straight boys. This wasn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy them sometimes, but I never really looked at the things I did enjoy in a gendered way and a lot of the more properly masculine or guy-y music, clothes, hairstyles, sports etc. that either I tried or had to try due to my parents’ traditional working class nudging I bounced off for reasons I never really understood. Around the time that various Junior School projects started being recorded and shared, I grew an immense hatred of my own voice, this nasally non-specific whinge that was neither as mid-deep and assured as I thought it sounded nor as light and expressive as I would have liked for it to be. (Nearly 15 years on, nothing has changed on that front.) I was extremely weirded out by being told at age 10 I would have to start cleaning the foreskin of my penis lest it get crusty and infected, and in deeper ways of disgust than simply being 10 years-old and realising your body is kinda non-fun gross.
But the leg hair incident was the first time I had a properly specific and fully conscious acknowledgement that something felt “wrong” about me. Unlike with my voice, it wasn’t about the disconnect between my projected self-image and the reality of me & my garbage genes that appear to have been drilled in Murphy’s law. It was specifically “I don’t like this, this doesn’t feel right to me, I don’t want this change and I want to stop it.” But, of course, I couldn’t. I knew something was “wrong” but I didn’t truly understand why I felt it was “wrong” nor could I explain it in any capacity and it wasn’t like there were any resources in the working class dumps of Scunthorpe circa 2007/8 to help educate me on any of this. It was just “puberty” and “it happens to all boys.” It was what it was and I just had to begrudgingly accept it. Indeed, by the end of the year, I was far from the only child in the boys’ changing rooms to have thick hairy legs. Still, I relished the times where our teachers would let us wear tracksuit bottoms instead of enforcing shorts.
Last year when I did one of these, I mentioned that I had a mental realisation about my sense of self at 2019’s halfway point but declined to go any further than that tease on account of wanting to spend time with the mental health specialist referral I was waiting on. I believe I specifically used the phrase “cos it’s a bell which can’t be unrung,” since I can be deeply pretentious. One year on and I am still yet to hear from said specialists – partly because the Tories have spent decades criminally underfunding the NHS and especially its mental health departments meaning that wait times for treatment can be literal years; partly because there’s been this little plague going around disrupting everything and pulling resources away, dunno if you’ve heard about it. But, if there’s been one positive to this truly awful horrible miserable purgatorial year that is not going to end when the clock strikes midnight (sorry for anyone whose hopes were clinging onto that idea), I am somewhat more confident, understanding and accepting of that realisation coming out of 2020 than I was going into it. Enough that I don’t feel like I need to wait for a mental health expert to officially certify or diagnose me to share it with folks, so here goes…
My name is Callie Petch and I am non-binary (they/them).
Let’s rewind a little bit. That July 2019 Manchester gig double-header (Janelle Monáe/Bloc Party) where I finished the second night and retired to the spare bedroom of my friend’s flat I was staying over in – much to the chagrin of her perpetually angry, perpetually weed-stinking, perpetually naked fellow tenant (that’s not relevant to the story, it’s just a detail I like to constantly bring up cos his whole macho-posturing efforts at angry intimidation when I kept using the bathroom next to his room were honestly hilarious to me). As I laid down on the bare mattress, moonlight streaming through the bay window, high off of a pair of really excellent gigs, the thought occurred: “why can’t I hold onto this feeling? Why am I still kinda miserable even now?”
Normally, these thoughts would start to curdle in my head, overwhelm the more immediate pleasures of a fun night out with a great friend, then send me to sleep fixated on the unanswerable question of “why can’t I just be happy?” But, on this night, I was on some very nice antidepressants which were taking the edge off of the worst, most overpowering parts of such thoughts and, instead of stew-wallowing by taking these whispers of the evillest parts of my mind as inarguable fact, had a moment of clarity. I had initially written “decided to interrogate that question,” but I wouldn’t say it was as intensive as that. Instead, it was more like my brain mentally threw out a series of seemingly disparate dots relating to thoughts and experiences (plus traumas and tribulations) I had experienced up to that point in my life that, when joined together, presented a clear picture I hadn’t seriously considered before then but which suddenly made complete logical sense.
Maybe the problem is that my gender does not correspond to my sex.
Looking at these shapes through this mosaic, it was surprising how well everything fit into place without having to twist or bend much. (I know the metaphor makes no sense, there’s no time for another draft.) I’ve had an innate distrust of and discomfort around men, and specifically more traditionally or toxically masculine men/bros/pricks/etc., all my life. Even when you take out all of my childhood bullies being boys or the time in Year 9 when I was walking with my girl friends and some boy with his mates (I forget whether he was older or younger) walked up to me, grabbed me by the crotch, laughed then walked off – an act I didn’t realise until eight years later, when I aired it on Twitter in the days before deleting my account and people told me in shock, was assault and not just folks being weird – I never felt like I could be myself around boys. I was closer to my mother growing up than my dad. (I’d say “oh, how times change” except that I still don’t feel especially close to my dad even whilst the relationship with my mother implodes.) Relatedly, I’ve always felt more of a kinship to and stronger connections with women. My best friends even back in Infants School were girls and that’s held true through Juniors, Secondary, Sixth Form, university, and beyond. (No offence to any of my male friends reading this, my misandry only extends so far.)
I have been officially diagnosed as clinically depressed for four years as of this past August, but felt its effects for at least five years before that (upon entering Sixth Form) and maybe even longer before then – I dabbled in constantly aborted attempts at self-harm throughout Secondary School, by which I mean I would infrequently try stabbing a sharp pencil into the veins near my wrists during my extreme mood swings between classes but always stopped whenever it started to hurt. A lot of that depression has been tied to the aforementioned deep-seated self-loathing I have over almost every aspect of my being and an intertwined suffocating sense of shame; yes, I do in fact feel shame despite what some of the shit I post might otherwise infer. As far as I know, the roots of it first took hold in the midst of puberty and the dumpster-fire that is Secondary. I acted out a lot, and not in “mildly charming socially maladjusted but means well” ways. More “trying desperately to be liked and fit into some group so insecure-dly goes against most of their natural self and just comes off like an obliviously sexist twat creep hiding behind irony.” I thought I was happy in those last two years of Secondary when the worst of that shift occurred, but I’ve been ashamed of that arsehole ever since.
Speaking of puberty, my facial hair. When it started coming through properly a few months into university – the one aspect of my puberty which thankfully held itself at bay for as long as possible – I got an electric razer and proceeded to use that same one for several years, only switching out when the rechargeable battery died a full death. It did the job, it took the worst of the daily fuzz off my face and neck, and I thought little more of it. I was shaving. But, as the years went on, especially after I got out of uni and my depression worsened, I started to fixate on how it looked like I had a perma-stubble, this dark shade around my mouth in all my photos which always made me look ragged and like I was trying to grow facial hair. I never looked clean-shaven and I wanted to be clean-shaven; facial hair felt awkward and coarse and I didn’t believe suited me at all.
So, in early 2019, my dad taught me how to wet-shave with a proper razer, shaving foam, and the works. I did my first one the day of my first gig that year (Azealia Banks in Manchester with a friend), thinking it’d also leave me pretty clean-shaven for the second gig the following night (The 1975 in Sheffield with two friends), nothing that a little electric razer wouldn’t be able to fix. In addition to about five different slices around my face and neck from trying to rip out the root follicles so I couldn’t feel a trace of where the hair around my lips used to reside… a very noticeable stubble had grown back by the time I awoke first thing for the second gig, like I’d never wet-shaved anything. I felt utterly demoralised and, despite my dad’s reassuring insistence, it did not get better the more practice. I would wet-shave, then wake up the following morning to see the face fur back like I’d only electric-shaved, the extra effort being for nothing. Dad would eventually admit it’s probably due to my genes and I’ll never keep non-visible facial hair for longer than 12 hours. Every morning I wake up, see this stubble and hate myself deeply.
Speaking of my body: penises are stupid and so are testes. All they bring is discomfort both physical – I have not sat comfortably for longer than maybe 10 minutes at a time in years, I always have to readjust myself because my crotch and the related genitalia are always so uncomfortable – and mental. The way this thing just decides that I have to drop everything at least once a day to masturbate, and refuses to let me focus or ignore it until the job is done, is infuriating. I do not get pleasure out of it, at all, but my biology insists it must be done and I fucking hate the act. (I am aware this is probably not something exclusive to men, or even all men, don’t worry.) Not body-related, but every time I have to sign in at my GPs surgery or enter initials for a mail delivery and am forced to pick “Male” as my gender (with no non-binary option anywhere in sight), my soul just sinks for the rest of the day afterwards.
But then there are the slightly more positive mental breadcrumbs too. In videogames, either with character selectors or creation suites, I have almost always defaulted to playing or creating women. Not for novelty/variety or horndog-ery, but because I want to. I’ll learn how to main women in games where there are specific characters, even if doing so isn’t conducive to my usual playstyle. In character creators, I always design women as a sort of idealised version of myself I can escape into for hours at a time. Whenever I see myself represented on-screen, either as reflections of my self or idealised power fantasies, in games or movies or TV shows or even music, it’s near-exclusively as queer-y women. The last few years where I refer to myself as something along the lines of “a queer 90s alt-teen girl coming-of-age movie trapped in a body that’s the opposite of such” hasn’t just been an unwieldly not-especially-funny running gag; it’s the truth.
When the phrase “I’ve always sorta known” or non-personal variations of such are utilised in response and explanation to someone coming out, it makes me very uncomfortable. Because, even if it is sorta understandable when looking at all the evidence with distance and that moment of clarity should it come, it’s a convenient narrative lie the media and society tell themselves in an effort to erase the trauma, pain and uncommunicable confusion non-cis and non-hetero folk have to go through to even get to this point. After all, if we did “always sorta know,” maybe we would’ve been able to communicate and accept that fact significantly earlier rather than spend years ensnared in a vicious existential pain – and that’s for those who live in an environment where it is safe to come out (and where I may be fucking up by even doing this, more in a moment). So, whilst it may be obvious in retrospect given the fact that I wrote pretty lengthily and revealingly four years ago about my connections to Kinzie Kensington (of Saints Row) and Jillian Holtzmann (of Ghostbusters 2016), I haven’t “always sorta known.”
Hell, even the day after that moment of clarity I started second-guessing my own revelation, especially since I had a panic attack that the meds were supposed to stop not long after and immediately dumped them (stupid Callie). It couldn’t be true. It was just residual shame over being such a shitty teenager. It was just guilt over passive complicity in the cis-patriarchy. It was just my mind trying to make me sound less boring than I am by playacting at a non-existent dysphoria – this last one is an insecurity which has dogged me and my queerness my entire life; it’s still not truly gone away. This had been going on for at least a year prior to my clarity, as I grew more and more disassociated from my biological body, and went on for many months afterwards even as I got officially referred to the Gender Identity Service and typed that prior-referenced tease. I felt like I needed to talk to an expert who could properly help me through this mess and tell me for certain before I would accept that my gender was not my sex.
Then, the stupid apocalypse happened, coinciding with my dad’s fun decision to paralyse himself for the rest of his life, and I suddenly had a lot of time on my hands and an empty house with two moany cats to tend to. So, even whilst the drive to do anything leaked out of me entirely and the loneliness & depression began their latest attempt at a permanent hostile takeover, I spent a lot of time reflecting, thinking, internalising. I did some reading, especially once I found out that wait times at the GIC can take upwards of three years in non-plague circumstances. I understood that my feelings of dysphoria really do mean something and aren’t just paranoid delusions – there was a great tweet along those lines that laid it out simply and which, combined with the invaluable conversations I’ve had with my nb friend Moosey over the years, finally made the fact of my non-binary-ness sink in but I can’t seem to find it again now. Less happily, the UK spent this year collectively showing its whole entire arse in a constant wave of transphobic attacks and legitimisation of TERFism, all of which just battered against my soul in ways deeper than mere progressive ally-ism; more like attacks on my very existence.
By August, I knew for certain. I’d been trialling little secret things to myself for the past year to see how non-binary-ness felt and, combined with that enforced downtime for soul-searching and this country just being so fucking evil, it felt right. This sex still destroys my self-esteem, since I will be able to pass for cis male without issue until whenever I am finally able to receive treatment, but I know that it is not me and therefore doesn’t have to define me and my mind. That’s a start, at least. I began coming out to my friends in October, as I turned 26. It was terrifying even though it really shouldn’t have been since I have always been kinda full-force and open with my friends (even when I really shouldn’t have), but they’ve all been so supportive and accepting. I get kinda tingly happy feels every time I receive a message from someone where they call me Callie instead of my dead-name because it means that I am seen and they listen to me and are there for me. I need that safe space so badly, especially after this year.
(That means, yes, I have not come out to my family yet, aside from my brother, and that’s gonna stay the case until I get my treatment. Very short version: we’ve had major communication troubles in recent years, they are either awkward about or refuse to accept parts of my personality that they don’t like even whilst they hypocritically preach an insistence that they’ll love and support me no matter who I am or what I do, and I have no safety net if anything goes wrong as a jobless mentally-ill barely-functional disaster lesbian with no life skills in a failing economy. I feel that my social and professional circles are separated enough from my home life that I can come out in those and not have it bleed over onto the homestead, especially since the Me at home and the Me with friends/work were two distinct entities even before this. In any case, this is our little secret, don’t tell the family, cheers.)
So, why come out professionally? Simply put: everything I write is my being honest with you, the reader. Whenever I promise you articles only to not deliver, I wasn’t lying to you; I really did intend to (and thought that I could) deliver you the content I said I was going to. (This is me saying: I know Listmas got borked but the promised pieces will arrive once my brain has stitched itself back together for a bit.) Same goes for my critiques, especially nowadays. I’m not putting on an act or trying to contort myself to fit any narratives or perceptions or signal my SJW wokeness or anything like that. Every single time, I’m just telling you how I personally feel and how a work caused me to feel that way about it.
And, frankly, the fact of my being non-binary – or at the very least non-cis male; I know much of this likely reads as coming out as a trans-woman but I don’t think it goes that far, that’s why I’d still like to enter the GIC and work through this all with experts – is starting to unavoidably seep into how I react to certain works. The biggest example: I saw Sébastien Lifshitz’s documentary Little Girl in late September on screener for review purposes, about a seven-year-old trans-girl and her family’s struggle to get society to recognise her gender. It’s a solid doc, empathetic, hits all of the notes required to not be exploitative, is clearly moving and respectful… and I felt nothing but exhaustion and a distance from the film. Partly it’s due to Lifshitz’s usage of tired cis-feeling framing (lots of ethereal looks at dresses and feminine objects/toys to indicate dysphoria), and the (possibly due to Sasha being painfully shy) unavoidable centring more on the family’s pain and struggles as the emotional core rather than Sasha herself, someone talked about and around more than to.
But also it’s because, dropping in the middle of 2020 and Joanne’s relentless (and somehow acclaimed) bullshit plus the history of mainstream-adjacent trans cinema in general, I’m just tired of coming out narratives and the pain thereof being the predominant representation of trans people in cinema. I’m just tired of it. It’s not what I want right now, horribly unprofessional though that admission may be especially in a year where the debate over “worthiness/relevance” in art has reached insufferable new heights. And, tried as I might, I just couldn’t get that fact across in my write-up without also coming out publicly on the pages of a real website, something I simply wasn’t ready to do at the time. Apologies to the poor PR contact whom I vomited all of this on without permission when long-windedly explaining why I wasn’t going to be able to review the screener he’d kindly sent me. That’s obviously a more extreme worst-case scenario, but it’s a fact of who I am and how I may read media going forward – this year I’ve been even more sensitive towards transphobia in media than I already was, for example – and I cannot keep dancing around this bear forever pretending like it’s not factoring into my writing.
So… that’s it. As I’ve told my friends, I don’t feel like anything has to change going forward cos I’m already pretty full-force as is, but at least I can now do so being fully and unapologetically Me (in a non-home capacity seriously for fuck’s sake keep this away from my family). In June and July, the whole site’s probably gonna go down for a few weeks as I let the current site domains expire and try to switch over to calliepetch.com rather than my deadname – it’s gonna take fucking ages with all the near-thousand articles and endless in-site hyperlinks; never make a site’s web address your own name, folks, it may come back to haunt you – but other than that… They/Them pronouns and my name is Callie Petch, cos I like the little feminine accent it gives me. If anything else changes, you’ll be… maybe not the first to know, but likely not the last either.
Since we’ve all been effectively locked inside all year, I don’t have any other selfie-type pics of me that I can use for the sign-off (and I am not in any way photogenic right now), so, Lucy, I’m sorry about this. See you all in 2021.