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.