Culture

Growing up trans in country Australia: ‘It was better to be caught with porno mags than Dolly’

My mind buzzed with a frequency rivalled by the overhead fluorescents of the supermarket. I targeted Bi-Lo, not Woolworths, because Woolies was the more popular of the Mudgee shops. Bi-Lo was where elderly people went to get their bran; it was quieter, dimmer, less evolved than the fancier new supermarkets. Its linoleum floors had gone as yellow as its shelf price stickers and the aisles were tall and narrow, a pedestrian maze ripe for a surreptitious sale.

The chrome gate sensed me and swung open. I entered the throat of the store. Inside I stalked the aisles, doing my best to outwardly human. Inside, my cells were vibrating. I checked each aisle in a reconnaissance sweep, looking for familiar faces, anyone who could connect me with what I was about to do. As shoppers made contact with my hunter’s gaze I took great interest in whatever it was on the shelf beside me.

Black & Gold arrowroot biscuits. Look at that! Very biscuit.

Huh, baby formula. Well isn’t that a product, I wonder what the ingredients are? Let’s check.

When I’d finished casing the joint I made my way to the aisle with magazines. I walked by as casually as a gecko in a gorge, my eyes bulging, head cocked, surveying my periphery for danger. Above me, dangling from a long metal stand was an intimidating black bulb, a security camera. Behind its translucent skin I could make out a red blinking light beside its all-seeing eye.

Don’t look at it! Act normal.

Hunting magazines. That sure is one dead deer.

Sportsball magazines, gosh, you know … and the sports and stuff. Go teams!

These were a diversion. While standing very human, fumbling with random sports mags, my feeble arms dangling like the love child of Ozzy Osbourne and a T-rex, I used my sharply honed peripheral vision to assess my true prey off to the side. They were on the lower shelf. I knew they’d be there, as every time I passed the aisle I afforded myself a quick leer. I put my hand to my chin as I perused the various publications, nodding intermittently.

Yes, all this capitalism appears to be in order. Jolly good.

My skull buzzed. Blood squelched in my ears. I forgot how to walk on rubbery legs. I forgot how to breathe with spongy lungs. I took one last look up and down the aisle, then went to the women’s magazines, reached down and picked up a copy of Girlfriend and a copy of Dolly. I coiled them and headed to the cash registers.

The fast aisle was optimal, but it had a queue of people with ten items or less. The girl working at it was in her twenties. I needed an older mark, someone who looked done for the day. I found her at the far end of the store. There was only one older man already being served, and his trolley was almost empty.

I approached the register. I stood behind him. The conveyer belt yanked his shopping towards the scanner, which beeped as the checkout woman swiped it through. Bag of bran. Boop. Bag of bran. Boop. Box of Weet-Bix. Boop. Bag of bran.

“Alrighty, sir, is that everything?”

The conveyer belt ate itself endlessly without a product to satiate its crawl.

“Yes thanks, love. What do I owe you?”

Another black bulb in the roof above me. Is that its lens? Did it just move? Is it looking at me?

The great black tongue of the conveyor travelled, pulling nothing forward.

“Do you want to put those up here?”

A bell dinged for a price check at the other end of the store.

“Excuse me?”

The woman was looking at me.

“Do you want to put those up here?” she said, motioning to the spinning conveyor.

I squeezed the roll of magazines. They crackled.

“Here you go, lovey,” the old man said, counting out fifty cents in ten-cent increments. I lifted my Ozzy-rex arms.

“What’s that, forty cents?” he said. “One two three, five; nope, you got it, thanks, hon.”

The woman took the money from the man, turned to the till. I put the magazines on the conveyor belt, face down. On the back of the Dolly a beautiful woman smiled widely as she was sucked away from me.

The magazines tripped the sensor.

They.

Stopped.

I swallowed. I ran my dry tongue along the roof of my mouth. I looked from the old man to the checkout woman to the woman on the magazine and to the exit.

“And how are you today?”

Shit. Do human, do human.

“Grood.” Nailed it.

She picked up the Dolly and slid it through the prism of the scanner. A red laser traced the barcode on the back. The machine booped. She grabbed the Girlfriend and waved it through the scanner.

It didn’t boop. She tried again.

“Hmm,” she said, “this one’s a bit tricky.” She tried at different speeds and angles.

“They’re not for me,” I blurted.

“Right.”

“They’re for my sister. I don’t even like them. Pfft. But you know. Big sisters, heh.”

“OK.”

Boop. It went through.

“Is that everything today, young man?”


I propped a chair against my lockless bedroom door. I threw my bag on the bed and reached into its bowels to remove the magazines. I held them as if they were bars of gold. On the covers were pretty girls smiling with shiny white teeth. They looked so at ease and happy. Their hair was long and smooth, with streaks of shimmering colour. Surrounding them were headlines like “Make Him Love You”, “Luscious Looks for Every Hair Type”, “Hot Tips for that Rockin’ Bod”, “What your breasts SHOULD look like!” and the promise of juicy goss about various celebrities.

I took the receipt from the bag and looked at it:

Magazine – Doll: $3.60

Magazine – Girl: $3.60

Even the receipt was precious. I’d wandered into a supermarket and, with my pocket money, bought not one but two magazines for teenage girls! The process was terrifying but the result was there in black on white thermal paper. I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away, so I folded the receipt up into a thin slip and opened the door to my wardrobe. I looked for a place to hide it inside.

Cadance Bell with her fiancee Amanda
Cadance Bell with her fiancee, Amanda. Photograph: Cadance Bell

It felt red-hot in my hand, dangerous. The thought of my parents discovering even the receipt for girly magazines in my bedroom was terrifying. I’d be worse than grounded, I’d be sent away to a loony bin, locked up. I’d become a dark family secret, the ghost of a son no one ever talked about. I reached up and felt the frame of the door above me and discovered a crack between the wall and the wood. I slipped the receipt into it.

That afternoon I read the magazines cover to cover and back again. So much in them was alien to me, there were so many products that I didn’t understand the need for. It seemed that in girl world, there was more than just water and hair gel; there were entire contraptions for the styling of hair, and a slew of different products for keeping that hair in place.

Then there was makeup; it was a labyrinth. Eyes alone appeared to require encyclopedias, there seemed to be a shape and a colour and a shine for every part of the eye except for the very ball itself (and maybe even then). If E was the most common symbol in the alphabet, then the most frequent symbol in girls’ magazines was a dollar sign.

My favourite sections were the confessionals and ask-me-anythings. I’d heard the girls in the school playground talking about these, they would read from them in giggling cliques. In Dolly Doctor, girls would write in and ask all manner of questions, from “Are these signs my boyfriend is cheating on me?” to “Why is the goo from my vagina yellow sometimes?”. I absorbed every detail, flummoxed and captivated by the words and the pictures and the products in the veritable libraries of Alexandrias and Spice Girls.

I took a pair of scissors from my pencil case and slipped the thin glossy sheets of wonder between the blades. I cut out photos of girls, leaving room above the heads, then I cut out bras and other clothes from ads. When they weren’t on models, fashion was frequently scattered about randomly across the pages next to starbursts like ‘Dolly Loves!’ and ‘OMG!’.

I made flat paper dolls. I dressed them in interchangeable tops and dresses. I placed my finger on the space above their heads and lifted the clothing on and off, styling them.

Bra. Top. Bra. Dress. Bra. Top.

A wave of shame washed through me, crystallising into fear. If anyone saw me on the floor of my bedroom, clothing and unclothing magazine models, my life would end – or worse. It would be better to be caught with porno mags, that was forgivable as boys being boys. What I was doing was something reviled, an act of indecency.

In the finale of Ace Ventura, when Jim Carrey’s gorgeous date is forcibly declothed, she is revealed to have a penis. She is, apparently, just a man in a dress. Ace screams, projectile vomiting into a toilet. He empties a tube of toothpaste into his mouth, takes off his clothes and burns them. He cries naked under a running shower, the victim of a fake woman’s fetid ruse.

Months earlier I’d watched the scene with my friends. I laughed with them, indeed I had perhaps guffawed the loudest. Loud enough to keep at bay my machiavellian mind rot. Loud enough to let the boys around me know I was one of them. This is funny, I’m normal, like you. Just look at my moat of howling laughter!

In The Silence of the Lambs, I watched the antagonist Buffalo Bill kidnap women and keep them hostage in a pit in his dungeon. He forces them to moisturise their delicate bodies, toying, “It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again.” Then he cuts off their skin to sew into a suit, tailored for his own body. He tucks his penis and dances underneath a cloak sewn from women. By the film’s end we root for his death.

These were my role models. They taught me what the world expects of aberrations. Now I was on the floor of my bedroom, cutting out shapes from magazines, hiding their receipts as trophies of malfeasance. Like a serial killer. I moved my chubby finger, covering the face of the paper doll before me. I imagined a different face for the figure, one I would never possess.

Bra. Top. Bra. Dress. Bra

  • This is an edited extract of The All of It: A Bogan Rhapsody by Cadance Bell, published by Penguin and out now ($34.99, paperback)

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