Sometimes I think people might think it’s strange for me to choose to call myself Shaun, a Western name, than choosing an Indian name, but there is a story behind this and it goes all the way back to the year 1990.
I was five years old and just starting my first year of school in a new town. I moved up from Old Erowl Bay, an isolated town in the South Coast of NSW, Australia with a population of 800 to Nowra; one of the main South Coast towns with a population of 25,000. Everything was new to me: a house with doors, streets of shops, houses lined up side by side and a massive school for kindergartners up to year two – don’t even get me started on the Primary school down the road, and the high schools seemed like big islands of brick buildings that reached up to the sky. It was all quite overwhelming for a little five year old autistic kid.
Just over a year ago I had been, not quite of a talker but I at least talked. I think I was overwhelmed by my massive school that made me crawl back into myself and not talk for the next ten years. So, I didn’t make any friends. In those days it didn’t really bother me that much. It just wasn’t my thing.
Also a year before I started school I began to experience feelings of being born in the wrong body. It was subtle at first, more of a preference for male things. I absolutely despised being dressed in dresses. As I was only four and a late bloomer I was still unable to dress myself. In those days in the old sea side town close to Aboriginal refuges I used to dress in a t-shirt and shorts and walked around mostly barefooted. I watched a lot of films and I mean a lot of films and fast become a little film buff. Over the years films would become my greatest teacher especially during the period where fear had taken away my voice.
In my first year of kindergarten I found myself roaming laps around the schoolyard alone and completely absorbed in my thoughts. I had a very vivid imagination. I could dream up images that seemed so real I could just touch them. As I grew the need to live as a male grew stronger. Most of my interests were being dominated by subjects in those days that seemed masculine. I was asking my mother personal questions about my only male friend’s body. Derek was my only friend who I had known since I was a few days old. Our mothers had gone to the same church and gave birth to us in the same hospital. We were in the same church and went to the same school, often in the same classes. Friendship was inevitable and he was the only person outside my family I actually talked to.
That was another thing I did: I got along with boys better than girls. It might have been the interests or just that desire to be one of them or a combination of the two. I was one child in a family of three girls and one boy and I looked up to my brother a lot. My mother used to say I worshiped the ground he walked on. And because my interests were similar to his he didn’t mind letting me hang out and play games with him. I think he liked that I seemed more like a brother than sister. I was still closer to my sisters which meant I was picked on more. My brother did pick on me but he even picked on me like I was a boy. I can’t imagine him ever picking me up and throwing me over his shoulders if I was more feminine. That’s how he greeted me one day when I visited his primary school. He and his friends played rough with me but I didn’t mind because I got to hang with the boys.
Some days I was really uncomfortable to be in my body. I hated my long hair which was too much work to take care of. I turned back to my films, the majority of which had a male lead around my age. In the 90s the main character in a children’s film was mostly a lonely boy who was an outsider and that was somebody I could relate to. I never picked up much from the children around me as my social skills were underdeveloped, almost non-existent in those days. The only children I could actually watch and learn from were characters on the screen. It was easier to focus on them because there wasn’t as much going on the screen as in real life. I felt more connected to those children in films more than I did anyone in the real world. I started to copy their sense of dress and mannerisms.
I’m not sure when it happened but one day at school I started to dream up my own male characters in my imagination as I roamed the schoolyard. I made up stories much like the plots of the films I watched. My imagination was now able to conjure up pictures so vivid I could close my eyes and watch a film of my own creation. Over time these films had a setting, a synopsis, well developed characters and themes that related to my own situation. When I was bored I could just think up a story to pass time, pause it when I needed to get back to the responsibility of being a child which was usually avoiding doing homework and spending the whole time drawing or exploring the outdoors or playing with my siblings. Then as soon as I was done and was left alone I could continue the story from where I left it. Sometimes I would zone out while watching TV and start ‘watching’ my own story. During one day when I was off sick from school I was able to play a film in my head from beginning to finish. It lasted an entire school day.
Psychologists call this Fixed Fantasy and it’s viewed as more of a personality disorder usually affecting those with social anxiety. I prefer to see it as more of a gift and something one could even make a career out of.
My characters were kind of like character actors or an actor who played different roles yet were basically the same person. Sometimes I had the same character in name and appearance for five or so years, but over the years I would come up with a different character. Lately, I have come up with a different character every few weeks.
When I was 10 and under there was a sandy haired boy named Matthew. Prior to that I wandered around the half built brick fence of a church and came up with a character called Josh. When I was 13 I was really into gangster films so I started coming up with stories set in the 20s and 30s, usually about a boy my same age. When I was 16 or 17 my gender dysphoria was so bad that I was addicted to my imagination. I was unable to stay in the real world while I was doing classwork. I literally had to stop making up stories for a while so I could finish high school. I started it up a year later. In my early 20s to 30s a 14/18/22 year old boy with a black mop of hair called Alex took up most of my time. I even got some of his stories down on paper when I tried to write my own science fiction. He was based on Dennis Lyxzen, the singer of Refused and a boy I danced with at an emo/punk club called Hot Damn who was actually called Alex, who my friend tried to hook me up with but we were both too shy to talk. Around this time it was seriously common to find an autistic male called Alex, so I began to write my own screenplays about an autistic character. This was at least a decade before the trend of writing in an autistic character made it to mainstream films and TV drama.
Focusing on these stories in my childhood in particular was my safe space. It was the only place where I could explore being a male, where I could live as one without facing ridicule from strangers, family members and even friends. In those days everyone gave me grief for it because transgender just wasn’t a term we heard. I didn’t even know such a thing existed and no one around me knew either. There was no option for me to live as a boy, to live as the real me. It was just too weird. On the bright side there was no hateful transphobia. No one wanted me dead. I would enter a girl’s bathroom and people would think oh, they’re a tomboy. I liked that term for me because it made me feel like people were seeing in me what I felt inside.
When I was living through a stressful time my film stories would give me a quiet alone space to work through them, to see the absolute worst result but also reach a solution, a choice that often was too difficult to make in the real world. When I was half-way through them or almost finished them I had gained a much better understanding about certain issues I was having. All the time it was being played out by a boy, someone in the body I so desired for myself.
At least 98% of these stories were set in America, while others were in England. Only two were set in Australia. It was mainly because of what I grew up watching on the screen: children’s movies mostly out of Hollywood. I was also for a time homeschooled through an American text book. I understood more about American geography, history and culture than I did Australian.
The reason I called myself Shaun was that it sounded similar to my given name of Shanti, which I think is such a great name for a female and I am definitely going to use it again for a character down the road, or maybe even name my own child. I felt it would be easy for people to remember to call me that. Also, one time my history teacher once mistakenly called me Shaunti and I thought it was interesting as it was the only time someone had accidentally called me a kind of male name. But it’s basically because it makes me feel connected to those boys I created in my mind and those boys are an extension of me. They allowed me to express myself fully in a time where doing so would paint a target on my back and result in me being ridiculed by siblings, parents, teachers, mailmen – you name it. I’ve lived in my head with these boys who I have known more intimately than any person – I’m basically their God – and I’ve grown up in a western country, so I feel closer to the culture here than I do Indian, though one day I hope to become better acquainted with Indian culture, and maybe then I’ll be comfortable with an Indian name. I may also wait until hormones change the shape of my face because as a writer I need names to fit the face. Scientific research has found that the name we’re given as babies can influence the shape of the face, but someone who renames themselves in adulthood just won’t go through that.
I had never come up with a character called Shaun though so I made one. These days it has been harder to come up with complete cinematic stories in my head and I think this is because I don’t need them as much because I’m out and proud. One thing I’m still trying to figure out is my homosexuality and dating so I’m currently fixated on a story about a gay autistic on the aro spectrum.
I’ve come close to getting these stories down on paper. I’ve self-taught myself how to write novels and screenplays and I’m taking this opportunity to create awareness about what it’s really like living with autism, ADHD, pathological demand avoidance syndrome, bipolar and other mental illnesses, and have been thinking about creating my own LGBQTIA+ stories. I’ve always felt writing your own novels and films are good way to educate others and maybe even change some preconceived notions about how people see the world.