I was a lesbian tomboy allowed to be female; I fear young girls today no longer have that choice

Tonje at 10-years-old

I was born in 1967, into a time of upheaval. Equality, the right to self-determined abortion, and equal pay for equal work were high on the political agenda. I grew up in a small town outside Oslo. My mother was considered uppity and my father a wuss because they were concerned about women’s right to an education and ability to make decisions about their own bodies and lives. It was my father who did most of the cooking — not because he enjoyed it, but because he simply thought it obvious that he’d be involved in all aspects of domestic labour. I was a daddy’s girl and tagged along with him as often as I could.

When parents of classmates asked what my name was, some would wrinkle their noses upon hearing my surname. That my parents were disliked by certain adults who thought fighting for women’s rights was nonsense taught me that standing out and being outspoken could have both positive and negative consequences.

In 1974, on the first day of school, I wore a shirt, blue jeans, a wide black belt with a large buckle, and football shoes. At seven years old, I’d found my style and, to be honest, it hasn’t changed significantly since.

As a child, I didn’t really reflect on who or what I was. My days revolved around school and doing things I was interested in and had a talent for. I loved playing football and ice hockey. There were no girls football teams in those days, so my dad and I started Kolbotn Girls Team. I collected stamps and football cards and had a little chest of drawers where I sorted the cards according to teams and years.

I also enjoyed wrestling and wanted to take part in the local wrestling club. It was the first time a girl had asked to join, so the decision had to be taken up during a club meeting. But I was shy and didn’t want attention — certainly not the kind of attention where I would be the one strange girl who wanted to wrestle — so I told my parents I no longer wanted to join.

Tonje on her first day of school at seven-years-old

Because I insisted on having short hair, wore football shorts, and often ran around topless, I was regularly mistaken for a boy. When I, on rare occasions, wore skirts, though, I was seen as a girl. Just like today, people read this item of clothing as “female.”

When I started fourth grade, a boy in my class and I fell in love with our English teacher. Together, we went to the block of flats where she lived and rang the doorbell. She invited us in, gave us something to drink, and we sat for half an hour on her sofa and stared at her, then left in a blissful haze.

After the crush on my English teacher, I fell in love with a young woman who was stocky, had strong, solid thighs, and large breasts. I became dizzy and light-headed just being near her, because I thought she was so beautiful. She was a few years older than me and I had a crush on her for several years.

Today, many would consider me a girl “born in the wrong body.” But in those days, even though some reacted negatively to my being “boyish,” no one ever suggested I was actually “born in the wrong body.” This never occurred to me either.

As a “tomboy,” I stood out physically through my activities and interests. This wasn’t something I really thought about, but certain situations would make it obvious. Sometimes people didn’t believe me when I said I was a girl, and I didn’t know what I could say or do to convince them. I didn’t understand the codes, shared community, and interests that many girls my age had in common.

Most of the girls my age entered puberty several years before I did. This meant that they became aware of their bodies in ways I didn’t understand at the time. I registered that my body wasn’t changing, while the other girls were on their way to womanhood, developing hips and other aspects of the adult female body. When I played football and showered with girls I didn’t know, I worried they would tell me I didn’t belong in the girl’s changing room, as my upper body still looked indistinguishable from a boy’s. But I also noticed that the other girls — particularly the ones who had larger breasts — were uncomfortable with their “new” bodies.

Occasionally, my parents would take me to a public pool in Oslo. In the women’s changing rooms there were old and young women, grandmothers and children. Some were thin, others fat. Naked girls and women in all shapes and of all ages. They had imperfections, C-section scars, only one breast; some short, others tall. Suddenly, I understood that it was normal for the female body to be different from woman to woman. Perhaps I wasn’t so abnormal after all.

When I was around 13-years-old, an adult told me that I was beginning to grow breasts and therefore should wear a shirt. I blushed, became shameful, and thought I should have noticed that I was starting to develop breasts. But I hadn’t, or perhaps I hadn’t registered it, reflected, or thought about the consequences of this development, such as having to wear a t-shirt to hide them. After that episode, I stopped going shirtless. I didn’t want breasts, but they grew out of my upper body like two small buns anyway. They didn’t feel like mine.

Then I got my period. It frightened me, so I called my mother, who explained everything to me. She told me she had mentioned it before, but that I hadn’t been receptive to such talk from my mother or anyone else for that matter. I was given a pair of “Saba Selfsit” pads, as tall as Mount Everest, and I thought, “What the f*** is this s***?” Puberty had well and truly started, and everything changed.

From the ages of 14 to 19 I was, like so many others, mentally unstable. I swung from being aggressive, depressed, apathetic, and frustrated, without understanding why. Some days all I wanted to do was sleep, other days I gave the finger to anyone who so as much as looked at me. I saw myself as ugly and disgusting, and I thought everyone else saw me the same way. I expected people to say, “There goes the freak” as I walked by.

In the documentary, The Trans Train and Teenage Girls (Tranståget och tonåringsflickorna), a young detransitioned woman named Sametti describes looking at pictures of herself before she changed her body and face with hormones and irreversible surgery. Like me, she had seen herself through pubertal and self-critical eyes.

“This is a picture of me at 16. I felt so ugly that I could not stand to look at myself.”

The process of going from having a child’s body to having a woman’s body was painful. My hips changed, the puppy fat settled on my face and the hormones that ravaged my body were not on my side. Body hair followed. Self-loathing and destructive behaviour was the order of the day because I wasn’t mentally mature enough to understand that puberty and the overwhelming feelings that come with it would pass. I thought of myself as ugly, which is not something you can defend yourself against. If people believe you are ugly, there isn’t much you can do about that. And I assumed everyone around me saw me as ugly, just like I did.

At 15, I started a weekend job at a bed & breakfast. I had hairy legs, and was told I must either shave them or wear stockings. I remember thinking, “There’s something wrong with my body — I’m a freak” and, “I have an abnormal amount of hair on my legs — much more than other women.” But I wanted to earn money, so I did as I was told, and covered my legs with nylon stockings. I noticed that the chef, who was male, wore shorts and had much hairier legs than I did, but apparently it was acceptable for men to have hairy legs, so he wasn’t required to hide it.

But I was lucky. I lived through puberty during the best decade possible: the 80s — the decade when the world of pop music was characterized by androgynous women and men who used clothes, makeup, and hairstyles to express their image and personality. It was cool to have an image that broke with gender roles, and pop icons like k.d. lang, Annie Lennox, and David Bowie challenged the boundaries of how men and women were expected to look and behave. They weren’t afraid to take up space and show us just how broad personal expression could be.

I’m not sure why, but many lesbians played football — something that brought us together during tournaments in Norway and Sweden. We found each other during the evenings. Few of us had any sexual experience, so we kissed and fumbled our way around. There was awkward touching, shyness, and a lot of excitement. During those days, there was no social media or internet, and we had no idea what we could do with each other’s bodies. This meant we had to experiment and let our bodies react. Through clumsy trial-and-error, I figured out what I liked and didn’t like. This took time, but it was a lovely period and I met many other girls who loved girls.

The environment evolved, and after awhile we were quite a large group of lesbian girls who met to drink beer, listen to music, and party. We did our own thing and managed to release some of the frustration that comes with puberty through partying.

At 17, I started hanging out at Metropol, a club that was a mecca for outsiders. Here, lesbians, gay men, transvestites, drag queens, “midgets,” deaf people, B-list celebrities in eccentric clothing, and prostitutes all hung out. Metropol was heaven and I went there as often as I could, both alone and with others. We drank and danced to Eurythmics, Prince, George Michael, Grace Jones, and David Bowie. Metropol was a club where I could be myself and where gay men and lesbian women could dance and snog as much as they wanted, without being physically assaulted.

A few years after Metropol closed down, Potta opened — a legendary club for lesbians, run by lesbians. Tina was the bouncer at Potta, and she loved her job. She was big and strong, and always wore army trousers, a khaki green t-shirt, and black army boots — a proper sturdy woman. Julie was in the DJ booth. She came across as tough and confident, but behind the bravado, she was more vulnerable and sensitive than most people. To enter Potta was to enter a world full of lesbian DNA. The stereotypical butches sat by the entrance, with their short hair and checkered shirts. They drank beer and played pool, were calm and cool, and didn’t cause any trouble. The so-called tomboys wore vests or t-shirts and jeans, had short hair, and were often younger and slimmer than the butches. I use the term “butch” in this context to describe these women’s physical and visual expression — meaning they were considered masculine women/lesbians. There were also lesbians at Potta who were more traditionally feminine, but not many.

The shame of belonging to a group of so-called “manly” women was widespread and self-loathing not uncommon. There is no shortage of people who ridicule lesbians’ appearances, and who think lesbians shouldn’t be so “lesbian.”

What this really means is that these people think lesbians should conform to stereotypical gender roles: be more feminine, wear makeup, dress and move like “real women.” These attitudes haven’t changed significantly in the last 30-40 years. Even some lesbian or bisexual women express annoyance with the “masculine” lesbians. It’s as if they think masculine lesbians shame lesbians as a whole.

Today, many young lesbians can’t bring themselves to call themselves lesbians, because they associate being lesbian with something ugly and shameful — a failed and unwomanly woman.

Mika, a young woman featured in The Trans Train and Teenage Girls, now detransitioned, is still angry. She was one of those girls who stuck out:

“My generation of mainly young girls, who are just a bit different, who stand out from the typical female role, we’re a giant experiment. We’re guinea pigs.”

As girls, we are taught to be considerate of others and to put ourselves and our needs aside. This is part of our social conditioning. Today, in “queer” communities and on social media, lesbians are told that heterosexual men who identify as women are lesbians. Young girls and women are told we should welcome men who identify as women into our changing rooms. The management in LGBTQ+ organizations accuse lesbians who won’t put the needs of trans-identified men before their own of “pulling up the ladder” behind them. In supporting trans activism and in putting these men first, these organizations invalidate lesbianism as a sexual orientation and legitimize hate campaigns against us.

The LGBTQ+ movement around the world is pushing women’s needs aside to make way for men’s demands: the demand for surrogacy, the demand to legitimize the right to buy sex from prostituted women, and the demand that men who identify as women be allowed to enter all women’s spaces.

What once started as a fight for justice for lesbians and gay men has become a movement that erases same-sex attraction as a sexual orientation. The few lesbians who dare state that being lesbian is a sexual orientation based on sex, not gender identity, are accused of being exclusionary, hateful, prejudiced, and of making the lives of men who identify as women difficult. Who will defend the right of lesbians to their own sexual orientation when LGBTQ+ organizations demand that lesbians see heterosexual men as lesbians? The rainbow family “protects” trans people from lesbians who challenge this. They consider us threats to vulnerable groups, and our “attitudes” and needs are called dangerous. Lesbians who stand up for their sexual orientation and the fact of biological sex are no longer welcome at Pride events, in LGBTQ+ organizations, or in the “rainbow family.” Nor are they welcome among liberal feminists or the politically correct left, who appear to believe that if only women would put themselves and their needs aside, the world could be a better place.

The aim of the queer movement appears to no longer be about gay and lesbian rights, but to break down the boundaries of children, young people, and women. No longer do LGBTQ+ organizations or Pride talk about falling in love, or how about much it means to many people to share their lives with a partner whom they love and who loves them back. Nobody talks about the importance of setting clear boundaries or creating a culture where we look after each other.

Potta was a home for me — a place where lesbian culture developed, and where I could develop myself and my image in safe surroundings. Having lesbian only clubs and events means young lesbians can meet other young lesbians in an environment where there are women of all ages who love women. In such environments, older lesbians can share stories about their challenges as women and lesbians, and younger lesbians can talk about the challenges they face within themselves and in society. But today, these kinds of spaces are called “exclusionary.”

But lesbian teens are, as other teens, looking for a sense of belonging — a group that they can relate to. We have clubs for people who collect stamps, saunas for gay men, but no clubs for lesbians. Once again, we hear what so many of us were told when growing up: that we should put ourselves aside and think about every other individual or group first.

Puberty is an intense and painful process. My personal story isn’t important in and of itself, but I want to share some of my personal experiences because I want people to understand the consequences of telling girls that there is something wrong with them. We are told we are not supposed to have hair on our arms, legs, or faces. We are expected to dress up in a “feminine” way. We are not supposed to have short hair. We must cover our breasts from the moment they start developing. We are told that we’re chubby, our breasts are too small or too large, our behinds are too big, our voices are too high pitched. We’re told that we should enjoy porn, and that sex is about anything but tenderness and love. Simultaneously, we’re told about the importance of setting boundaries so others don’t misunderstand what we want and don’t want.

The increase in the number of young girls who want to be boys is alarming. At the same time, there has been an increase in teenage girls suffering from mental health issues. In Norway, the number of teenage girls with mental illness has increased 40 per cent in five years. Many young girls face body dysmorphia, self-loathing, and mental health problems during puberty — many more than those who say they are “born in the wrong body.” There are a thousand good reasons for not wanting to be a woman or a girl in this world. If we were able to truly choose, I would not be surprised to see lots of girls choose to become men.

In The Trans Train and the Teenage Girls, Sametti looks at photographs of herself before she started testosterone treatment. She now sees a lovely young woman and can’t understand how she could have seen herself as ugly at the time. The difference is that Sametti is no longer a teenage girl filled with insecurities — she can now see her younger self through more mature eyes.

I’m a lesbian tomboy who grew up in an age where the concept of being “born in the wrong body” didn’t exist. If I were a child today, I wouldn’t have stood a chance against trans activism. I can’t bear to think what might have happened if I had been assessed at The Karolinska University Hospital, which hosts Sweden’s largest gender identity clinic, or the Gender Identity Development Service (GIDS) at The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.

In 2019, lesbians, women, and others who want to think and express themselves freely are arranging meetings in secret locations. This is happening in Norway, Denmark, the UK, the US, Canada, and many other countries. For us, George Orwell’s dystopian novel, 1984, has become a reality. Despite this, the number of people fighting back is increasing. We are doing what we can to reclaim this right which the anti-democratic LGBTQ+ has managed to stifle across many parts of Western Europe and elsewhere.

I am a lesbian with an intact body. I have been happily married for 20 years and know about the power of true love. I have been part of the lesbian and gay community since I was 16-years-old and experienced the cruelty towards lesbians explode in the name of trans activism. I have never experienced such hate and anger towards lesbians talking about their needs and opinions until now. This is my story, my experiences, and my call for help. Please don’t look another way.

Tonje Gjevjon is a visual artist, composer, and filmmaker. She is the leader of Hungry Hearts.

Translation by Kari Müller.

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