Aron never really thought about gender either, but in his case it was more because he always had much more pressing things on his mind. The people around him were incomprehensible on so many levels that the way they managed to effortlessly sort themselves into boys and girls was just another thing that didn't make sense to him.
He didn't have many friends at school. It wasn't that nobody liked him - they just weren't interested in the things he was interested in. While everyone else played at hospitals, he would examine the way the stones of the boundary wall fitted together, or act out in elaborate detail a battle from the Illiad. A few generous souls tried to include him, but quickly decided he was too weird to be worth bothering with.
There were bullies, sometimes. Some kids were endlessly amused by the way they could reduce him to incoherent rage by singing the same note over and over again, or going through his collection of interesting twigs. His fury usually landed him in the head's office, while his tormentors got away with it because the teachers never saw how deeply they were hurting him. In any case, the teachers were already frustrated with him for the way he behaved in class. He knew how to do the work, but all sorts of things would distract him, and the work was never finished by the end of the lesson.
Detentions had no effect on him - he could find just as many distractions inside a classroom as out on the playground, and he was away from the people who liked to tease him. Letters home, and the obvious frustration of his parents and the teachers, made him feel like he ought to be doing better, but he couldn't work out how to manage it. The teachers' instructions always left something out, and trying to figure out what they meant was one of the easiest ways to get sidetracked.
The summer he moved up to secondary school, his dad sat him down and gave him a long lecture about making a fresh start. Nobody would know him there, and it was a chance to put "all that" behind him. He gave it some serious thought, and decided that his biggest problem was that he couldn't control the things that made everyone consider him weird. If he deliberately cultivated a few extra weird qualities, everyone would assume he was doing it all deliberately, and pay less attention to the things that were out of his hands.
So he reinvented himself as Zan - or Zane, depending on his mood - the class clown. A hundred and one ridiculous-sounding questions to the teacher at the beginning of each assignment kept his classmates laughing, but they also helped him get unambiguous explanations of what they were meant to be doing. A couple of teachers went out of their way to make assignment descriptions "Zan-proof", thinking it would frustrate him: actually, it was exactly what he wanted.
At some point, he fell in with the music and drama crowd. He learned to play the piano and the cornet, and spent a term playing in a percussion band one of the fifth years set up. He auditioned for a couple of the school's drama productions, but although he could keep the audience amused as himself, he couldn't manage to step into a role. Instead, he helped with painting sets and dressing the stage, and stayed well back for the final performances for fear he would ruin them by getting distracted at the wrong moment.
After that, school worked out pretty well. There were still a few people who tried to mock him, but he had friends - or maybe fans - who could stand up to them, and if that didn't work he just turned the weirdness up even higher until they gave up. GCSE coursework was a struggle, but teachers who were well used to his problems dragged him through it somehow, and he ended up with decent, if not spectacular, grades. He went to college, where he decided to study English, Drama, and Music.
There was a pleasant core of people who were - at least outwardly - just as weird as him. He dated one of them: an incredibly flamboyant drama geek who turned out to be gay. Aron received the news as an interesting but not life-altering piece of information, and was most puzzled by the fact that it apparently spelled an automatic end to the relationship. "I want to date boys, Zan," Jonny explained, in much the same tones as his Zan-proofing teachers had used. "But I could be a boy for you," Aron replied.
Jonny was having none of it, but something clicked into place for Aron. He'd never really felt right being a girl. It hadn't bothered him, as such, but there had always been something that didn't quite fit. The more he considered himself as a boy, the more it made sense. Obviously he was the kind of boy who didn't mind dressing up in girly outfits - but then, Jonny was also that kind of boy. Thanks to the internet, he quickly discovered that there were plenty of others like him.
It was a thrilling discovery, but it was also the biggest distraction yet. When he wasn't trying out new names, he was hanging out in online groups, swapping tips for looking like a prettyboy instead of a girl with guys all over the world. Coursework deadlines came and went. Tutors called increasingly urgent conferences. He promised to sort himself out, and sincerely meant it, but the possibilities that had opened up for him were just too fascinating. In the end, he bowed to the inevitable, dropped out, and found a job.
His dad was furious. He raged at Aron for wasting his potential, until Aron's mum suggested that his potential might be better realised in a job. A truce was declared, which lasted until the shop where Aron worked hit a rough patch. Aron - the last staff member hired, and the most easily distracted - was the obvious first choice to be laid off, and the arguments began again. And so the pattern was set. If Aron was in work, his dad would grumble fairly quietly, but the moment he was out of work, there would be another eruption.
The final blow fell a week after Aron's 18th birthday. He had printed out the form that would make him legally Aron Zane Black, but before he could take it to a solicitor's, he got laid off again, and he decided to save his money until he knew when he'd have more. His dad was in a fine old temper at the dinner table. "I didn't raise my daughter to mess about in shops and bars all her life," he said. Aron was dimly aware that this wasn't a good time to bring it up, but he couldn't bear to keep it to himself. "I'm not your daughter, dad," he said. "I'm your son. I'm a bloke."
Both his parents acted as if he was only saying that to make his dad even more angry. His dad ranted, swore, demanded to know what the hell he was thinking, while his mum quietly pleaded with him to stop upsetting his dad, "things have been difficult for him lately." The shouting started to physically hurt Aron, and he couldn't take any more. He went up to his bedroom, packed a couple of bags, and walked out.
He stayed with an ex-workmate for a couple of weeks, then spent a couple of weeks on the settee of someone he'd been at college with. He didn't know anyone well enough to move in with them, but he didn't mind asking people he hardly knew if he could crash at theirs for a few days. Even Jonny, when he called and explained what was going on, let him stay for a while. Whenever he was working, he scoured the newspapers for flats, but before he could get a first month's rent together, he was laid off again. So he just kept bouncing round, staying with friends of friends, or moving in with blokes who liked to think of him as their girlfriend.
He knew he couldn't go on like that forever - especially not the girlfriend part - but he couldn't think of another plan apart from crawling home to his dad. He went to the Jobcentre with some vague ideas about getting his name down on the council list, and spotted someone he thought he recognised. Kris had been a couple of years above him at school, but everyone had known the "dyke weirdo". But now, looking at him, Aron realised he'd never been a dyke. He was another guy like Aron - a potential kindred spirit. And that, especially in the mess he was currently in, was enough to send him strolling over to introduce himself.