If I close my eyes I can still see your mother sitting across the table from me, leaning back in her chair with a sparkle of curiosity in her eyes and the confidence not to take empty words for answers. She was about your age and eager to find her way in the world, a very different Lily from the accomplished diplomat we have the privilege to call a friend today.
We all experience crucial moments in our lives, when reality challenges our beliefs and we have to reevaluate our principles, our reason to exist, our very selves. Sometimes it’s a change of perspective, a shifting of priorities, a fated encounter, and other times simply getting the answer to your question redirects your life’s purpose.
I was born to a large family, the oldest of five girls, to my parents’ dismay. Try as they might, they couldn’t produce the boy tradition required, the one who was supposed to inherit the family name and assets. Childbirth after childbirth I saw my mother’s demeanor grow more and more wretched in the face of what was considered the family shame, her inability to produce a male heir. My sisters and I were very close, begrudging our luck together and trying to stay out of sight in order to avoid the bitter snarls that came with the misfortune of being born to the wrong gender. The five of us didn’t have much, but we shared everything, we played, laughed, built castles in the air and tried not to think about our future. We sneaked out into the open fields to play catch and make wild flower garlands and we taught each other everything we discovered about the plants’ properties and growing habits. A lot of my passion for horticulture was born in those days, out of the loving bond I shared with my sisters.
I was already eleven years old when my parents gave up on the hope of having a son, and because I was the oldest, and also too tall, strong and wayward, they cut up my hair and dressed me up as a boy. It may sound odd to you, but it was a fairly common custom in the area I was from for families without sons to have one of their daughters act like one.
I cried for days at the loss of my beautiful tresses, so dark, thick and heavy that when I braided them the braids were thicker than my arm. Every day when I woke up, I washed my face and looked in the mirror to see a very sad boy stare back at me. The image in the mirror was my face, but not quite, there was nothing familiar about the furrowed brow and the piercing gaze of those transparent eyes, it felt as if that person in the mirror had been born a boy, and the girl me in front of the mirror never existed.
My sisters started treating me differently, I had privileges now, I had become one of those upon whom fate had smiled, I didn’t have to do the chores, I was free to move as I pleased and I could voice my opinions at the table. I tried with all the strength and passion that I had to hold on to the sisterhood that was our most prized, our only possession, I ran after my sisters out in the fields and tried to explain that I was the same person, that it wasn’t my choice, that I valued our times together, but tradition was stronger than anything, stronger than sisterhood, stronger than shared experiences, stronger than our promise to each other. To them I was a boy now, and that instantly made me the enemy.
Ironically, the privileges imparted by my apparent change of gender got completely annihilated by the loss of my cherished bond with my sisters.
Days passed, then months, then years. I learned to walk tall, to stare, to talk back, to stand up and defend my honor, and every morning when I looked in the mirror I saw a young man stare back at me, not sad anymore, but daring, strong and willful.
I went to school and learned to read and count, I walked into the market as my father’s equal, I attended the gatherings of the community of elders, I laughed at risque jokes and I partook in the spirits. For almost seven years I was this person, this strange tall and beardless boy, and I became so at ease with my role that even the neighbors forgot that I’d been born a woman.
When the seventh year arrived, and I approached the age of eighteen, my parents figured it was time to find me a husband, so they allowed my hair to grow and made me beautiful new female garb, to ensure I attracted worthy suitors, but every time I looked into the mirror in the morning I still saw that daring young man stare back at me, a man whose hair was allowed to grow long and reached all the way down to his waist now. For a whole year my sisters tried to give me a crash course in “womanhood”, they taught me how to walk, how to smile, how to lower my gaze, how to act obedient, but that daring young man in the mirror couldn’t be taught submission to save his life and no suitor in his right mind would take the challenge.
My father was angry, my mother decried her continued martyrdom of shame and disappointment in her offspring and to top it all, our village was at war. The eligible suitors had become fewer and my awkwardly ambiguous gender presence became increasingly contentious in the household.
One morning my father came home from the market with a jubilant smile on his face and announced proudly to the family that he had found a man willing to marry me sight unseen. The house was immediately engulfed into an effervescent bubble of relief and contentment, as the preparations for my upcoming nuptials took flight.
Very early the next morning I cut my hair, dressed in male attire, took a last look in the mirror at that daring young man with the piercing eyes and joined the military. I was so deeply connected to my male identity that nobody even questioned whether I was a man or not, what woman with any sense would dare attempt suck a thing?
As luck would have it, our troop was embedded with a French battalion, whose commander figured out the gender switch, shrugged his shoulders and said it didn’t matter to him one way or the other. I left with that battalion when the war was over. I needed a new name and because I wasn’t given one, but I was free to choose for myself, I wanted it to mean something, so I chose Seth, the third son of Adam and Eve, the one almost never talked about, born to replace Abel.
This story happened sixteen hundred years ago and what I thought would be a relatively short life of paucity and struggle turned into the quite incredible story of my life, story even I have difficulty believing half the time.
I didn’t have any reason to dress up as a man in France, and I found I didn’t really have a preference for the male attire, so in time I regained my identity as a woman and learned to remember that daring young man who used to look back at me from the mirror as my oldest, dearest and most faithful friend.
For thirteen years I was “out there”, seeing the world from a perspective that would never be my own, watching myself through a different person’s eyes, seeing my life stripped of all the artifice one builds around oneself to span over the gaps in common sense, over defective logic and wounds too painful to examine.
I was “out there” until I found out how to define my own meaning, how to organize my own moral code, how to decide what I wanted to do with my life. I was encouraged to learn that “daring” and “woman” were not mutually exclusive terms, that “out there” women fight, and lead, and voice their opinions at the table.
The experience of acting a different gender brought about almost all the beliefs and personal traits I have today, and I consider that first time when I looked in the mirror and saw a man, the defining moment of my life.
(Letters to Lelia)