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International Gay & Lesbian Review

The Last Time I Wore a Dress

by Daphne Scholinski with Jane Meredith Adams
review

Pamela McMullin-Messier: Pamela McMullin-Messier is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Southern California. She is doing research on the social construction of population and women's rights in non-governmental organizations, on how the discourse has influenced and shaped debate on public policy issues.

“Girls with Gender Identity Disorder display intense negative reactions to parental expectations or attempts to have them wear dresses or other feminine attire. Some may refuse to attend school or social events where such clothes may be required. They prefer boys' clothing and short hair, are often misidentified by strangers as boys, and may ask to be called by a boy's name. Their fantasy heroes are most often powerful male figures, such as Batman or Superman. These girls prefer boys as playmates, with whom they share interests in contact sports, rough-and-tumble play, and traditional boyhood games. They show little interest in dolls or any form of feminine dress up or role-play activity. A girl with this disorder may occasionally refuse to urinate in a sitting position. She may claim that she has or will grow a penis and may not want to grow breasts or menstruate. She may assert that she will grow up to be a man. Such girls typically reveal marked cross-gender identification in role-play, dreams, and fantasies…” (DIAGNOSTIC AND STATISTICAL MANUAL OF MENTAL DISORDERS, Fourth Ed., 1994)

How many of us, at one time or another, have challenged what it meant to be a girl or a boy? How many of us challenged authority, without fully considering the consequences of our actions? After reading the above assessment of what constitutes a “gender identity disorder,” how many of us see ourselves, even slightly, in that description? Gender identity is complex and confusing for those of us who don't fit neatly into the categories that society has designated for “proper” gender behavior, and this is in particular to any deviation from the norm of heterosexuality. As a result, there are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning youth being institutionalized for simply being who they are. Often parents think that being gay or questioning one's sexuality or simply not acting like other boys or girls are symptoms of mental illness, and as result institutionalize their children to cure their “deviant” behavior. The American Psychiatric Association defines gender identity disorder (GID) as a mental condition involving “a strong and persistent cross-gender identification,” accompanied by discomfort and pain or impairment of normal behavior. An estimated 3 million youths under 18 fall into this category (LA Times, 11/2/97). GID has often been applied to transsexuals seeking sex-reassignment surgery, but it is also routinely applied in pathologizing gender variant children, queer teens, and transgenders. “GID isn't about dysfunction. It's about punishing gender difference and enforcing gender norms in the guise of practicing medicine. Just like the earlier ‘disease' of homosexuality, GID is inevitably used against the most vulnerable among us – our genderqueer kids.” (Transgender Menace). Daphne Scholinski's story symbolizes the anguish of being labeled as such in THE LAST TIME I WORE A DRESS, as it tells the story of her multiple hospitalizations, as result of being diagnosed as having a GID. Although her story is told from her teen years in the 1980's, what happened to her is still happening today and needs to be fought against, here and now.

Scholinski's story begins with her pondering the question that was continually asked of her, “why don't you act more like a girl?” and wondering why the focus on this. She then discusses a part of her second hospitalization, where she was given points for using make-up, styling her hair, and wearing feminine clothing. The accumulation of points would allow her to walk by herself, unsupervised. She learned the hard way that to be a woman, you had to conform to someone else's idea of beauty and femininity in order to be free. These may be trivial matters to the ordinary person, yet it reveals how our soul screams to come out when culture stifles our individuality and identity. Scholinski then tells us how much her treatment cost overall: one million dollars of insurance coverage for three years of hospitalizations. Was it worth it? A resounding “no” echoes back in bewilderment.

Her painful story begins at age 15, with her father driving her to the first hospital. Memories of what led to this are going through her mind, of the violence that existed at home and the divorce of her parents, and her deviant behavior (stealing, drug and alcohol abuse) that grew in response to needing attention. Unfortunately, she was pinpointed as the source of blame for dysfunction in her family and it was recommended that she be hospitalized. The gender identity issue was not discussed until after her hospitalization, as the doctors determined she was an “inappropriate female” because her “mouthy ways were a sign of a deep unease in [her] female nature and that if [she] learned tips about eyeliner and foundation, [she'd] be better off.” (6). Her expression at the beginning of the hospitalization was “If I felt anything…it was a stab of hope,” (5) yet her memoirs contain the betrayal of the so-called solutions to what ailed her.

The hospitalizations stripped her of her life and dignity, in a sense. She was admittedly out of control, and initially the hospitalization was to help find out why and tame her behavior. She had recently been thrown out of school for physically threatening a teacher and she was involved with gang-bangers. Something had to give. Her memoir goes back and forth between the ongoing hospitalizations and her life at home prior to the institutionalization, which gives perspective on the dysfunction between her parents, which was displaced onto her in her behavior. Within her memoirs are snippets of hospital reports that had been written about her progress. There is discussion of sexual abuse that happened before and during the hospitalizations, which puzzles one to wonder why this was not uncovered in therapy. To the outside person, Scholinski's behavior seems explainable, in response to her environment.

In her third and final hospitalization, the issue of her homosexuality develops, which the doctors attribute to her gender identity disorder. They virtually ban female friendships and give her points for spending time with boys. Recently, there was a 20/20 interview segment that discussed how a girl had been hospitalized against her will for GID because she told her parents that she was a lesbian. The hospital documentation, which was very similar to Scholinski's diagnosis, showed that this girl was admitted for her defiant behavior, which resulted from depression and her “expressed” expectation that she was homosexual. The aversion therapy “treatment” for this girl's “disorder” was atrocious, and it makes you wonder if we are still living in the dark ages. Scholinski was interviewed and said of her painting, which is entitled “The Last Time I Wore a Dress,” “Basically, it's a painting of a person standing in front of a seclusion room door with a hospital gown on, and that would be the last time I wore a dress. I was settling into the idea that this is where I was going to be for the rest of my life. I mean, the initial comment that they made to my parents was, ‘People in your daughter's condition usually spend the rest of their lives in mental hospitals.' It was absolutely the most devastating occurrence in my life.” It took Scholinski 13 years to tell her story, and it is a story that we all need to hear more of. Scholinksi did present her story to the world in Beijing at the U.N. World Conference on Women in 1995, where she said “The psychiatric system gave me two choices: change or don't exist. I have chosen to exist.” It was after this that she decided to write her story, with some assistance. Scholinski is currently an artist living in San Francisco, and her work elucidates the terror and horror of her experiences in the hospitals. Very touching and grabbing work in its harshness, it visualizes her pain.

In the last chapter of her book, Scholinski comes back to the present in telling us of the continued nightmares, as result of her experiences. She shares her experience of making her own path, and yet how she keeps coming back to her earlier experiences in how people are still responding to her – she is a very masculine woman, and doesn't hide it. She also recants on how she is a survivor, unlike some of her compatriots from the hospital who have since committed suicide or have given up on life. She also discusses her anguish in not being able to change what happened, as she still wonders why she wasn't treated for her depression, the sexual abuse, and the physical violence she suffered from home. It all comes down to wondering why they treated her for not acting like a proper lady; realizing how all the other stuff was treatable, while being who you are isn't. She discusses how much she missed out on, and how unreal her life in the hospitals was, and how hard it is to be an ex-mental patient. She talks about how her art saved her life, yet she still struggles to let go of the past and simply live. Scholinski gives us much more than a glimpse of her life story, she offers us a chance to consider the choices we have in being who we are and what we want to be, and the consequence of living in a society and culture that needs to change.

THE LAST TIME I WORE A DRESS is a book that should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding and fighting against the heterosexist gender-structured world that we live in. The GLBT (and those who are “questioning”) community needs to pay attention to the issues raised in this book, as it affects all of us in how we are defined. It is also important to note that Scholinski also included an appendix of the diagnostic criteria for Gender Identity Disorder, as well as a resource list of organizations for people to find support and services. I found it hard to put this book down, as there was so much that I could relate to in reading her story. Not just for myself, but in remembering friends who were labeled “different” and criticized at times for not being girl enough as well. Scholinski's book is like a cross between ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOOâS NEST and THE BEAUTY MYTH in its portrayal of the insanity of a system gone wrong mingled with gender conformity. It was a disturbing book and I feel it serves as a wake-up call for action.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Jarriel, Tom. August 29, 1997. “Mom, I'm a Lesbian. Mother Commits Lesbian Teen to Institution.” 20/20 http://www.204.202.137.112/onair/2020/html_files

Transexual Menace. July 20, 1996. “APA Target of 2nd National Demo by Transactivists.” Gender Talk. http://www.gendertalk.com/GTransgr/apa1.html

Ybarra, Michael J. November 2, 1997. “The Girl Who Wouldn't Act Like One. As a Teen, Daphne Scholinski Faced a Choice: ‘Change or Don't Exist.” Los Angeles Times

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International Gay & Lesbian Review
Los Angeles, CA