To Be Or Not To Be (Yourself)

—By Sunny Cook—

As Oscar Wilde famously said, “Be yourself; everyone else is taken.” However, what if being yourself is the opposite of what you appear to be? What if being yourself gets you only disgust, rejection, discrimination and humiliation, for your entire life? Would you still have the courage to be yourself?

Cary With Her Cat Sugar.

Cary With Her Cat Sugar.

These are not rhetorical, philosophical questions for Cary Wilson. She is a 65-year-old Asheville native, who knew from an early age that being herself was not acceptable – to her family or society. You see, she was born with male genitalia.

At birth, she was declared a boy and was named and dressed as a boy. But as Cary became aware of herself as a person, around the age of three, she knew something was wrong. She didn’t feel like boys were supposed to feel. She didn’t enjoy playing the games other boys enjoyed playing. Everything in her told her she should’ve been a girl. [Note, in this article, regardless of whether she was named her birth name at the time described or not, the pronouns describing her will consistently be feminine.]

One of Cary’s earliest memories was of a Christmas morning. She was the youngest of four children (two sisters and a brother), and her family didn’t have much money at the time. Christmas morning was meager, but still exciting for a little one. As she ran to the tree, she saw two beautiful new dolls. She happily grabbed one and held it close. Her older sister tried to take it from her, offering her one of the two trucks instead.

Cary cried, holding the doll. She didn’t want the truck. Her mother ended the squabble by taking Cary into another room. She told her firmly, “You’re a little boy. Boys don’t play with dolls.” But Cary wanted to play with dolls. She cried herself to sleep every night, praying that God would let her wake up as a little girl.

This began Cary’s inner conflict with being herself. She knew deep inside that something was wrong, and it was very clear that being herself was not allowed.

A smart child, she loved school and learned quickly. But she couldn’t change who she was. When she was about eight, she was home from school, not feeling well. By afternoon, she felt better and wandered next door to the neighbor’s house. Their older daughter had an apartment out back, over the garage.

Cary was thrilled to find a box of her clothes to be given away, and she started playing dress-up. As she played out in the yard wearing the girl’s lovely dresses, the school bus happened to drive by. The kids all hung out the windows, pointing, shouting names, and laughing at her.

School now became a daily torture to endure. Branded a “sissy,” she experienced bullying continuously through her school years, with the name-calling becoming more and more cruel as the years went by.

Moms reading this, it is interesting to note that Cary’s mother never knew about her public shaming (sometimes even by teachers) at school. Why? Because Cary loved her mom, and she knew the topic of her being ‘different’ was painful for her mother. She didn’t want to burden her mom with her school problems. Her mother had enough to deal with. So Cary suffered in silence.

Many mothers, especially fifty years ago, might want to ignore this topic, hoping their child might be going through a phase they would outgrow. After all, mothers want the best in life for their children. What mother would want her child to go through the difficulties associated with being labeled ‘different?’

Our society is not kind to those who are different.

Cary developed a steely strength in order to survive. She always tried to hold her head up high, rise above and ignore the bullying and name-calling, inwardly telling herself they were just ignorant. Of course, it still hurt.

Feeling isolated with her conundrum, Cary was astonished to read an article about a woman in Paris who’d undergone a new procedure – a sex reassignment surgery to have her male genitalia altered to look like that of a female. The term for it was “transgender.” At last she’d discovered that she was not the only one in the world who’d had this sense of being in the wrong body!

She took the article to a supportive school counselor, who urged Cary to look into this new procedure to see if she might also have the same surgery. Cary wrote to Johns Hopkins twice, but never heard back.

Meanwhile, one high school experience was the straw that could have broken the backs of many camels. As she walked down the hallways between classes, the boys would line up along the lockers, whistling and jeering at her calling her “faggot,” “queer,” and “Miss Wilson.” One day, a guy hit her and threw her up against the lockers.

She yelled, “What’s wrong with you? What have I done to you?” He took out a letter and shook it in her face.

She grabbed the letter and ran to the principal’s office with it. Someone had written a letter to all the jocks and slipped it into their lockers asking if they wanted a blowjob… and signed Cary’s name. School officials discovered who did it, and he was called into the office for a mild reprimand… but Cary was sent home.

Humiliated and disgusted at the injustice, Cary never went back. She was almost sixteen.

In 1965, on the morning of her sixteenth birthday, a surprise was waiting for her. Her extended family was gathered on the front porch to confront her about the secret letters she’d written to Johns Hopkins. They had intercepted the replies from Johns Hopkins.

The family meeting turned into a traumatic scene with tears and yelling, culminating with her stepfather telling her to pack her “damn queer clothes” and get out.

How would you deal with that at age sixteen?

Cary has documented her life in her e-book, but for the purposes of this article, we’ll end her story here. This allows you a small insight into the difficulties faced by those who know that their assigned gender, based on their genitalia, is not necessarily an accurate indicator of the person they are inside.

These questions remain: What creates the sense of being a male or a female? Is it hormones? There is an argument for that theory.

Following the World War II bombing of London raids, studies were conducted on the children who were in utero during those awful times. In the U.S., we can’t imagine the terror those pregnant mothers must have felt during those nightly bombing raids with buildings exploding and collapsing around them.

A high percentage of male babies born afterward grew up to be homosexuals. Was it coincidence? Modern society’s influence? Scientists wanted to know if was nature or nurture, internal chemistry or external influences.

They discovered that when faced with extreme stress, the body pumps out adrenaline, the fight or flight hormone. Experiments revealed that excess adrenaline suppresses testosterone. Scientists theorized that the extreme stress of the pregnant women in London might have suppressed the “male” hormone in the male fetuses. Some children were born with male genitalia, but when they grew up, they weren’t sexually attracted to females.

Does that make them evil or bad? Did they choose it? Do they deserve hatred and discrimination?

Cary shares her story in hopes that people will begin to understand that being yourself is often an act of courage and determination. In spite of the all the pain and discrimination (to this day), Cary chose, in 1976, to have the transgender surgery to look on the outside like she felt on the inside. She chose to fully be herself.

She’s a Western North Carolina woman.

Sunny Cook is an Asheville writer, editor, and the co-author of the biography, I Am Cary. Connect with Cary on her website,, and Sunny on LinkedIn.

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