When you have Klinefelter Syndrome, you are living proof that gender isn’t clear cut. An anonymous account from Gaborone, Botswana.
It was clear from the first day of high school that I was different – and I don’t mean different in the angsty Tumblr way all teenagers think they are. Mine was an exclusion from the norm that was defined and difficult to miss.
I knew before school even started that I hadn’t been developing like other boys at the most crucial stage of any young man’s life; there was no muscle development, no deep voice and no significant increase in ‘umph’ down there. Instead I got feminine body fat distribution, limited body hair and lanky height, weak to no energy, increased estrogen and male breast development. During that first year, a teacher; an adult charged with the care of impressionable youth, said right to my face ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ That’s right ‘it’ – I was reduced to a thing.
I wasn’t, in fact, a sci-fi experiment gone wrong, despite how I began to feel sometimes. I was one of 500 boys born with Klinefelter Syndrome – a genetic condition whereby one is born with XXY sex chromosomes instead of the ‘normal’ XX or XY. My appearance and subsequent changes were all as a result of this but finding out only provided a tiny bit of comfort. Living with it was a whole other ordeal.
Being confused for a girl outside of school was a whole other matter.
Swimming class became a living nightmare because of the onset of my gynecomastia – the enlargement of breast tissue in males I mentioned earlier. I was kind of a chubby kid then so most of the symptoms could be explained by that, but once in a while someone would look at me with what felt like knowing eyes and their fervent whispers behind my back would seem to somehow be personal.
This, unsurprisingly, did not have the best effect on my mental health. I had always been a quiet kid but, with these experiences, I retreated into myself and felt the urge to make myself as small as possible so as to not draw attention to myself. My existing anxiety became debilitating and I experienced bouts of depression and began to self-harm. I also began having learning difficulties and the intelligence I’d prided myself on as a young child seemed to slip away with my self confidence and mental health.
Being confused for a girl outside of school was a whole other matter. Strange men hit on me thinking I was a girl and I felt unsafe a lot of the time. I got a glimpse of what women experience everyday.
My condition eventually inevitably forced me to rethink what I thought I knew about gender and sexuality.
I went crazy for a couple of years trying to prove my manhood to others and most of all, myself. I went out for rugby, the ‘toughest’ sport I could find and stuck with it for four years to prove that I was not ‘less than’; that I could, in fact, run with the big guys and be ‘a man’.
My condition eventually inevitably forced me to rethink what I thought I knew about gender and sexuality. Unlike other identities in the spectrum of sexuality, there’s a physical aspect that manifests itself whether one likes it or not. As a result a significant number of XXYers go through sexual and gender crises. I was the same. Ask me about my sexuality and you’ll probably get a prolonged ‘ehhhh’ and a shrug.
Romance is an ongoing battle. When I was younger I felt I had to pretend, to assimilate into a role of manliness if I wanted to have any kind of relationship with a girl. I however would end things before they could really begin because I just couldn’t pretend. My masculinity and femininity pretty much go hand in hand and for many potential partners that makes romance difficult as they don’t know how to classify and therefore treat me. Oh, and there’s also the bonus gift of infertility, a symptom which might have not been visible, but was present nonetheless.
Gun to my head, if I had to tack a label onto myself, I’d say ‘gender-queer’ or ‘non-binary’.
The concept of gender, while still multifaceted and too complex to simply be explained away as pageantry or madeup (even though it is), is not so rigid to me anymore. Gun to my head, if I had to tack a label onto myself, I’d say ‘gender-queer’ or ‘non-binary’ but I’m also okay with people assuming I’m cissexual and calling me male.
Now that I’m older and I’ve done plenty of research on this, I know that there are options available to me. Hormonal therapy can treat physical symptoms but I don’t know if I’ll ever do it because I don’t think I need to be ‘treated’ anymore. Also, some of my symptoms have receded and therefore seem less urgent; the gynecomastia is less pronounced and I can grow a scraggy semblance of a beard to be more ‘passable’ as a male if need be. Unfortunately, the infertility part is permanent. I think I’ve made as much peace with it as possible for now, but I think the day I may want to have kids it’ll hit me anew that I can’t and I’ll have to relive the wave of emotions.
I realize that in all of this I have failed to mention support, be it from family or friends, and that’s because I didn’t get any. The closest I’ve ever gotten to opening up about my personal struggles to them was mentioning my anxiety back when it was severely interfering with my ability to attend classes and it was quickly brushed under the rug. Lesson learned.
I don’t know if they actually didn’t notice the changes their child was going through (which seemed apparent to everyone else) or they just pretended not to. Klinefelter was something I didn’t discuss with anyone in my real life, but I did find online confidants and with their help I managed to slowly work on myself day by day.
Hopefully my next step will be letting other people, people I love, know about my journey. And if this rambling mess can somehow encourage one other person to come to peace with who they are and simply let themselves be, then sharing was wholly worth it.
This is part of a guest editorship series by Bakang Akoonyatse. She’s commissioning and editing a series of pieces for TRUE Africa as a Guest Editor. More here.