Rusks, cadets, and transgender

Last night my grandson tried his first rusk.

No teeth yet, he gummed away at the hard breadstick softening the outer surface. When he finally lost interest there was a groove etched on either side as if he’d been sharpening a pencil. 

When one of my brothers joined the cadets as a schoolboy at St Patrick’s during the mid-sixties, he brought home some of the army rations they offered the cadets whenever they went on training days at Puckapunyal. These rations contained dry biscuits that were even harder than the rusks my grandson sucked. 

My husband asked why bother buying rusks when you could simply cut off the crust from the loaf, he’d baked earlier that day but that loaf to my mind would have been too soft and bits might break off and threaten to choke the baby. 

I have the horrors of choking in babies, so I made a quick trip to the local small shops for the purpose of buying the ideal, organic rusks made out of milk and wheat and ever so hard. 

Just like my brother’s dry biscuits which we kids bit into and groaned. They were enough to chip even the healthiest of teeth. Mine were not. My brother said we could soak the biscuits in tea and that way get to eat them, but when we did this, we were left with a stale bread taste which made the whole endeavour pointless.

My brother’s cadet uniform included khaki green trousers in a woollen fabric and a khaki thick cotton shirt on top, girded by a wide black leather belt and black leather boots that came up to his ankles. His pride and joy. 

Each cadet day morning, he scrubbed his boots till they shone, and pushed aside everything else that belonged to anyone else in order to get out of the door as soon as possible so as not to be late for cadet parade. 

My brother was grumpy in those days, grumpy as an adolescent and I found myself wanting to stave off my own growing up if this is what happened to people when their bodies began to change.

All of which puts me in mind of discussions I’ve been having with my daughter of late about JK Rowling’s take on transgender. How people of my generation, the Boomers, though not all, seem to be confused about transgender. 

Something tells me much of the anxious opposition from some of my contemporaries arises from fear of change.

My daughter tells me some of this ‘transphobia’ is an offshoot of the second wave of feminism. All those hard-won increases in women’s rights undone, at least in fantasy, by men who want to transition into women and again take away women’s rights.


Rather the desire to transition might come from a different place where gender is less polarised and more fluid. 

There’s also the confusion of sex and gender, sex being your biological determinates as male and female, while gender is constructed. 

I watched my brother prepare for cadets and felt a wash of relief that I would not have to join the army as my father had done before I was born.

I did not want to join the military life of regimentation and rules. But even then I thought it was unfair that my brothers could do things like go camping on the weekends and sleep in pitched tents in the darkness when the best we could do – because we were girls – was sometimes in summer join our brothers for a night under the stars in our back yard. 

The ground was hard and lumpy but to lie on my back without a barrier between me and the night sky with its scattering of yellow stars was to float into a different bodily sensation one that was miles away from the gridles my mother wore every day and my sister had already told me would be my lot too when I reached her age. 

I don’t remember how it was, but girdles went away. By the time I hit adolescence, women were wearing panty hose and even those awful things called suspender belts were fast becoming relics of the past. 

Before ten, I too wore suspender belts when in the winter at secondary school stockings were part of the uniform.

The rounded button buds that you took between your fingers and covered with a single tug from the top of your stocking and forced through a loop attached to a strap you wore around your waist, one on the front of your thigh, another at the back had a habit of falling off with age. I replaced them with coins but was fearful that someone might see this abortion of the regulation suspender belt.

Army fatigues for boys, suspender belts and girdles for the girls. Our genders were constrained from the onset. Small wonder as time passes that people begin to rebel against these constraints. 

But transgender experiences go deeper than this.

It’s not just about a uniform, or the clothes you wear. It’s about a deep identification with a sense of being in the wrong body and given we tend to think of bodies as being masculine or feminine, small wonder some people decide their body feels wrong. 

These days they can think this. They can feel this, and they can get help to transition from one sense of their body to another. 

Why does it upset people so? Why does it upset people that other people are not happy with their biological bodies and want to take on another body? They are not hurting people. They’re not forcing this change onto other people. They want it only for themselves.

My colleagues argue that young people are wanting to transition too early before they have a clear sense of identity and that this is a problem if actual radical hormonal and other interventions take place too soon. And this may be so, but I can’t help but think the real resistance is against some fixed polarity of perspective that says girls must be girls and boys must be boys and nothing in between or too divergent from this is okay. 

It reminds me of our resistance to gay people decades ago, this idea that it’s somehow not natural. 

Who decides what’s natural? The biological essentialist who reckons that just because you have a penis you must be a boy and if you have a vagina, you’re a girl, when there’s so much more to gender than your basic bodily characteristics. Not just body bits but ideas and feelings and attitudes. 

It’s tricky territory. New terrain and I want to embrace it with a more open mind that allows people to have the freedom to explore their sense of themselves as they will without being pigeonholed from birth.

Gender is a construct.

There’s more to being in the army than dry biscuits. More to sampling foods as a baby than gnawing at rusks or crusts of bread. And more to being alive than the constructed rules of human existence would dictate.

12 thoughts on “Rusks, cadets, and transgender”

  1. Tricky for sure. I think we have to trust the experts on gender reassignment. It is interesting that in Asian countries young children are dosed with hormones before they reach puberty and so prevent them reaching sexual maturity as the wrong sex, regardless of their physical appearance. Yes, mostly boys. They never sexually mature as men.

  2. In the LGBTQ support group I go to from time to time (when I have the time), there’s a fair amount of transgender folk, both MtF and FtM. Among the transgender, there’s a wide variety of ages, from teenagers to late middle-age (before I go any further, I should point out that “transgender” is not the same as “sex change”–it’s first and foremost a psychological state, whether you’ve taken hormones and have had surgery or not.) In a perfect, transfriendly world, it shouldn’t matter, but teenage boys can pass for teenage girls much more convincingly than anyone over, say, 25. That right there might be a good argument for as early a transition as possible. Just saying

  3. Such a lovely way to put it, Kirk: ‘a transfriendly world’. I suspect much of the hoopla we hear about is out of fear, but fear can make people hostile in all types of guises. Thanks too for clarifying the difference between sex change and the psychology of transgender. Thanks Kirk.

  4. Rusks, mmm. Or to be more specific Farley’s Rusks. I see Heinz has bought them out but still kept the Farley’s name. Very wise. I loved the edge. I’d nibble all the way round before eating the rest. I loved the way it crumbed into my mouth. If a packet appeared in our shopping I’d still regard it as a treat. They do a banana version now. Not sure how I feel about that. Had someone handed me a crust to gnaw on as a kid I’d’ve been mightily offended. Mightily! You should’ve soaked them in milk rather than tea.

    One of the shows my wife and I watch regularly is ‘Pose’, a series about “New York City’s African-American and Latino LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming ballroom culture scene in the 1980s.” So says Wikipedia. I’m not sure I’d’ve been able to find the words to describe it without risking offending someone. I watch it with interest but I don’t really get any of it. I simply suspend disbelief and enjoy it for what it is. In many respects it’s no different than ‘Carnival Row’ which follows “mythical creatures who have fled their war-torn homeland and gathered in the city as tensions are simmering between citizens and the growing immigrant population.” Again, thank you Wikipedia. Underdogs I get. I don’t get men who want to dress up as women or men who want to have their manhoods lopped off but I don’t need to get it. My general attitude towards most things is: As long as they’re not hurting anyone or inciting others to hurt or trying to force others to adopt a lifestyle they have no interest in then fine, go for it. Of course there will always be Feminists who take it too far and Muslims and Right-wingers and Flat-Earthers whose world-view becomes so narrow it can’t encompass anyone outside their tight-knit circle but that’s the way it’s always been.

    When I grew up if asked what my gender was I was being asked what my sex was. They were interchangeable terms. I don’t know when “gender” started to be something else nor “truth” nor “poetry”. Definitions used to be so much simpler. Complexation leads to complication. And that’s how I feel about life nowadays. It’s needlessly complicated.

    Many years ago I read a novel by Brian Aldiss called ‘The Primal Urge’ in which people had an Emotional Register implanted in their foreheads. A disc glows pink to red whenever someone has an attraction to another. This heralded the end of the British stiff upper lip. Comedy ensues. The book ends, however, with the Russians coming up with a second disc which lights up green whenever anyone’s lying. One can only wonder how many more discs we could’ve ended up with before we ran out of headroom.

    1. Oh my goodness, Jim, the image of those discs on top of people’s foreheads to indicate attraction and truth-telling. How would that be? I agree with you, if people are not doing harm, then why are we so vehemently opposed? There must be more at stake. For good or ill. Thanks Jim.

  5. This is such an interesting post and thankyou for it. I fear those who deign to tell one what is in one’s mind, as if feeling the right to overrule another’s experiencing. It is also at the heart of destructive gossip. I remember when I was a small girl, aged about four, telling my mother Very Firmly that I ‘am a girl’ and feeling this very strongly in myself. Why not for people who are not me to feel what and who they are? How one be, ( or is it bes) and makes room for others to be is about becoming civilised…

    1. I couldn’t agree more, Christine. There’s something about being civilised which includes respect for others, even if they challenge our long-cherished views about how people should be. Not for us to get in their heads and say they’re wrong-headed, not if they’re not doing harm to themselves or others.

  6. Another thought provoking post from you Elisabeth, and it puts me back in the late sixties/early seventies when sexuality was about anxiety, judgement, secrecy. Lives were stifled because of societal norms and now, forty years later, what do those differences matter? We’ve come so far, but the sadness remains in friends who ‘dumbed down’ their true selves, felt shame and never blossomed, simply because of rigid values. I think too of tragedies such as Alan Turing – incredibly sad and a ludicrous waste.
    My discomfort stems only from my ignorance of a new, subtle language that’s emerging. I don’t move easily in it because word choices are critical and I’m frightened of clumsily offending. Familiarity will come with time, but for now I must google terms like ‘non-binary’ and ‘gender fluid’, as I’d like to feel comfortable and fluent in these conversations – be able to concentrate on the story and not my terminology.

    1. It takes a little getting used to, Sally, this new language but it’s not hard. And if we try I reckon it won’t take long before it rolls off our tongues. I agree you’re right about the power of language and its importance in coping with change. Thanks, Sally.

  7. But also, I do not want be simplistic about gender/ sexual identity, nor to be succumbing to any trans political movement. This is a complex issue, entangled with family relations, developmental issues and identifications… and is it that the increased presentations to clinics are part of a process? Is transition necessary? How many find they have made a huge mistake having transitoned? What is going on? Even to ask these such questions these days is to stand against political pressure to close down such discussion.

    1. I haven’t watched it yet, but my daughter urges me to take a look at a documentary on Netflix called Disclosure, Christine, which deals with the representation of trans people in media and film. I intend to watch it tonight if I can. It’s apparently very compelling in how it helps to understand the misrepresentation of trans in the mainstream, rather in the way gay people were portrayed in years gone by. We have a lot of prejudice to overcome in order to be able to keep open minds on these issues and too many I fear shut down at the very idea that trans is okay. Different and okay, notwithstanding all the complexity just as men and women are largely okay, despite all the complexity. Thanks, Christine

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