“Prove to Me You’re Really A Girl”
This article first appeared in The Huffington Post.
I stood still under the bright lights on the big, curved white backdrop, my left foot pointed away from the camera, my torso twisted to face it, my head tilted just so, my hands at my hips. The breeze from a fan blew gently against my Dorothy Hamill bob and put the desired flounce in my soft pastel top. I resisted the natural urge to blink as if my very life depended on it.
Modeling for catalogs wasn’t every kid’s dream of how to spend an after-school afternoon, but I was living mine. At 13, my ninth year in “the business,” I earned $100 a day to pose for pictures wearing clothes I had only dreamed I could own.
It’s not that my parents couldn’t afford the velvet leggings or the flowery blue tunic. But given that I had been raised as a boy and lived as one outside this studio, I had accepted that my golden ticket to girlhood did not exist beyond my bookings, and feminine fashion was merely a work uniform.
Almost every boy my age would rebel at the idea that they dress as a girl, even briefly, even for money. To me, three decades before I would finally come out as transgender, this was my chance to help support my family and at the same time escape boyhood, even for just an afternoon. And nobody knew except my mother and me.
But what happened that day has remained a secret I’ve kept from everyone, even from her, for 40 years.
The photographer called his fitting assistant Kevin to the set, to adjust the wrinkles appearing in my red leggings. In those pre-Photoshop days, wrinkles could only be banished from clothes worn by fashion models by cutting them open in the back, pinning them together and stuffing cardboard everywhere, and I do mean, everywhere.
As he moved his hands in and out of my leggings, Kevin adjusted the cardboard in such a way as to inadvertently unmask an attribute of mine, one that was rather unique in the world of teen girls fashion.
He knelt before me, smoothing and adjusting the cardboard every which way, when I felt his hands move across my bare skin, and then to my crotch, where he paused, looked me dead in the eyes — and stopped cold.
Without looking away, he removed his hand from my leggings, slowly stood and took me by my arm off the set.
“I’m going to adjust these in private,” Kevin called over his shoulder. “I’ll need a few minutes.”
By that look in his eyes and the grip with which he held my arm, I sensed immediately that I’d been discovered. My first thought was of my mother, sitting in the waiting room away from the set, unaware my secret was out and my career was suddenly at its end. Kevin hustled me into the dressing room, where he finally let go of me as he closed and even bolted the door, then leaned back up against it.
I froze, as if I were back under the studio lights instead of the hot spotlight of his green eyes.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly, perhaps sensing my fear. He started to move slowly toward me. “You can tell me the truth.”
But before I could, Kevin reached out and gently pulled down the leggings, carefully removing the cardboard as if peeling back the petals of a flower, and revealing what lay beneath, no longer concealed. I remained silent, frozen, paralyzed by fear and unsure what to do, other than stand still.
My underpants went next. A bra and panties were the one concession I had won at home, because it helped me maintain the illusion in the dressing rooms that I was just another one of the girls. That is, after all, how I felt. But the warm touch of Kevin’s hands had provoked an autonomous reaction that had utterly destroyed that illusion.
“You’re no girl,” Kevin stated the obvious, his voice dripping with disapproval, sounding exactly like one of the countless schoolyard bullies who mocked and ridiculed me. That scared me. I remember shuddering.
“Unless, of course… “ all at once, his voice seemed to soften again, perhaps in response to my quivering and what must have been a startled look on my face. “If you do want me to help you, then let me help you,” he said, whispering. “I can make this all go away.”
Wild thoughts ran through my mind: What does he mean? I can’t run, not like this. What will my mother say when she finds out? What could he do to ‘make this all go away?’
Nervous, feeling sick, I did not know how to respond. And so I dared to ask Kevin, “How?”
“With a kiss,” he cooed, lowering his head. “Right here. Prove to me you’re really a girl.”
The sodomy that followed has remained my deepest, darkest secret. I’ve never told anyone, not even my mother, my wife, or counselors.
That afternoon in the dressing room, I concentrated on thinking it was the price of getting caught; a ransom I paid to work as a girl. Not only did I finish the shoot that day, I worked for another four years, until finally I decided I’d had enough. Then, I locked away my days as a girl model along with this singular incident of violence. They stayed buried in the past until the recent stories of “me, too,” led me to draw this awful experience from the shadows and finally address it as the woman I am.
Like many, I’ve had a male boss once tell me I was “being melodramatic,” compared to the supposedly more rational arguments of my male colleagues. I’ve suffered catcalls and felt unwelcome hands in crowded places. But luckily I have avoided another instance of sex abuse.
The recent stories of how brave and courageous women stood up to evil men made me stop to think: should I have spoken up before now? I recognize I was not to blame or deserving of this victimization, but I realize had I come forward then, perhaps things would have been different for me, or others. Certainly for Kevin, whom I never saw again.
As a mom and as a woman who works with men who wield power, I impart what I’ve learned to both my daughter and to my sons: no adult should force you to do something out of fear, and no man should ever hold power over what a woman does with her body.
This applies to all women, even those of us who spent our girlhood as boys.
Before moving to online journalism, she worked as an executive producer at Politico and at several TV stations across the country. She got her start at CNN and worked her way up to producing for CBS, NBC, and ABC News.
Ennis was America’s first transgender journalist in a TV network newsroom when she came out 4 years ago. Since then, she’s spoken as an advocate for transgender rights at national media, religious and civil rights conventions, as well as on TV and on NPR.
She is also a widow who does the job of mom for three children who call her “Dad.”
Ennis and her family reside in Connecticut with their cat, Faith.