Gender is a funny thing, for some of us. Maybe you’ve spent your whole life confident in your gender and you’ve never wondered if you are what everyone says you are; when you were born your parents were told you were a little girl and they sent out birth announcements and everything kind of went from there. You’re a girl. You’ve always been a girl. You always will be a girl.
It started for me in elementary school, when I felt a growing sense of wrongness when I was sent out to play with the rest of the girls. I wanted to be with the boys; I wanted to be a boy, but not exactly. I didn’t feel like a boy any more than I felt like a girl and I covered up my uncertainty and confusion with loud, clashing outfits that went well beyond what was conventional for the 80s.
In middle school, when I couldn’t avoid school any more without a raised eyebrow from my father, I’d slink into class in the loosest boy’s clothes I could find. “She used to be so cheerful,” people said.
I still remember the eighth grade grad dance, when I gussied up in a minidress with sparkles and had my hair done and had this strange sense of glittering artificiality. Everyone’s looking at me like a girl, I thought, so I must be doing something right. But I didn’t feel right, not exactly, not with the way people looked at me in that dress, and over the summer, my body betrayed me.
My lean, hard, angular body turned soft and squishy. It bled and seeped and sighed. My hips splayed out and my chest exploded and I hated it. I bound my breasts; this was back in the days before Internet in every home, and we certainly didn’t have it in our home, so I didn’t know what, exactly, I was doing, or how to do it.
All I know was that I wanted it to stop, and wrapping an ace bandage so tightly across my chest that I couldn’t breathe was the only way to feel better. Strapping up my hips to force them into men’s jeans made me feel like I had some kind of control in this world, even though every part of me ached by the afternoon.
I spent my high school years vacillating between ornate and ridiculous clothing appropriated from wherever and whenever — Elizabethan gowns with velour jackets over them, yukata stolen from my father’s closet and worn over corduroys — and the most masculine clothing I could think of. I loved it when people thought I was a boy. But I wasn’t a boy, not exactly, not really. I didn’t know what I was. I didn’t know what it meant, exactly, to be a girl or a boy, all I knew was that I wasn’t either.
All my friends seemed so sure they were girls and boys. So confident and assertive. They never had that doubt, they didn’t stand in front of the mirror at night thinking about cutting their breasts off or wondering why they didn’t have penises.
I went to a hippie school where skinnydipping was the order of the day and when we stripped down at the river, at the beach, my body felt so wrong that I would dive into the water as quickly as I could just to escape the wrongness. I’d float for hours until someone made me come in. “We’re leaving without you,” my friends would say, and I would haul my duplicitous carcass out and bundle it up in a towel as fast as I could.
I didn’t know what I was because I didn’t have a word for it. There were girls and boys and men and women and I wasn’t any of those things, even though sometimes I liked being a boy, having people think I was a boy. I couldn’t imagine being a man. I definitely did not like being a girl, I can tell you that.
It wasn’t until I went to college that I met trans people. And I found out there was a word for what I was. I wasn’t a freak at all. I remember turning my friend Kathryn’s license over in my hand and seeing the “M” on it and going “Hey, they made a mistake on your license” and there was an awkward silence and then, one by one, everyone in the group came out. “We just assumed you were trans,” someone said, “because you seemed so uncomfortable in your own skin.”
“It’s OK not to be a girl or a boy, there’s a word for that,” my friend Philip said, letting me watch while he took his testosterone. I was filled with wonder, that this was a thing, that I could fix the wrongness, that I didn’t have to live with it forever and ever.
“You’re a genderqueer.”
“A genderwhat,” I said.
“Genderqueer,” he said, with a smile, the kind of smile someone gets when they realize they are introducing you to something really exciting that you are really, really going to love just as soon as they finish explaining what it is.
Gender isn’t a thing that happens to you. It’s a thing that is, I learned, that night. I learned that the gender assigned to me, the thing people treated me as, wasn’t my gender if it felt wrong. And that the opposite of girl didn’t have to be boy, that there was an entirely different space that fell entirely outside that binary. And that I felt like I was dressing in drag when I dressed in women’s clothing because I was dressing in drag, and that was okay, too.
It took a few more years of shapeless clothing and endless frustration before I started defiantly identifying as genderqueer, asking people to use my preferred pronoun,1 exploring the possibility of medical transition. Of changing this body that betrayed me to make it align more accurately with who I really am.
Transition is hard for nonbinary people, as those of us who are not men and women are sometimes known. For men and women, access to transition is already heavily restricted by medical gatekeeping. It requires jumping through hoops and checking boxes to get hormone replacement therapy, to access reconstructive surgery. For us, there are just gaping silences; what does a not-girl, not-boy look like? What would a not-girl, not-boy need with hormones or surgery? What does a not-girl, not-boy transition to?
For people like me, who don’t fit in the boxes established by the medical gatekeepers of transition, those testosterone injections, the mastectomy, the hysto, are all things we need to access in other ways; as someone with variant BRCA 1 and 2, for example, I would be a candidate for a prophylactic mastectomy … if I could pay for it.
Transition is extremely expensive, and often isn’t covered by insurance. Trans people hold donation drives to pay for top surgery to reconstruct their chests, trade hormones with each other and partners to get through until the next paycheck.
Turn to anything and everything to get by, to survive, not just to access transition but to live in a world that is extremely hostile to trans people, that excludes them from jobs and opportunities, and that is sometimes so casually hateful that it takes my breath away.
These are the things I lie awake at night, thinking about. Some days I’m happy in this body and I like dressing it up in floofy things and heels. “This is what a genderqueer person looks like,” I say, pointing at a picture of myself in a dress.
Other days I slick my hair back with all the crème I can find and I bind my chest as tightly as I can and I slide into a suit and I love it, oh how I love it, when they call me “sir” at the grocery store. I smile when I get a letter addressed to “Mr. s.e. smith.” It’s those days that I think about picking up the phone and calling a surgeon, asking about breast lopping on the installment plan, wondering how many bake sales I have to hold to pay someone to cut out my uterus.
And that’s why I was horrified when I visited my favourite website’s main page, only to find a transmisogynistic slur, a word so hateful that I will not repeat it, not here, not anywhere, not ever, proudly emblazoned across the main page in connection with an interview with the Kardashian sisters.
This slur, the t-word, t*nny, has a long history of use specifically against trans women. It is hateful and vile and evil. Some use it in a reclamatory way, to defang and subvert the epithet, but I do not feel comfortable doing so; trans I may be, but I am not a woman, and I do not share the loaded social and cultural history that trans women do. In my opinion reclamatory word use can be empowering, but only when used by members of the group involved or by explicit request or permission.
This word is used to hurt my sisters, it is hurled at them when they walk down the street, when they are raped and beaten and choked to death, it has even been hurled at me on occasion; I was called a “fat t*nny whore” for not wanting to have sex with someone, once.
It is hard to explain the feeling I got when I saw that word on the front page of a website I’d only recently started writing for, a website where I was starting to feel at home, a site where I have already been having fun with commenters, and feeling like a member of the family. My heart started pounding in my chest and my breathing tightened and my eyes widened.
Sometimes our families hurt us, you know, without even meaning to.
When Lesley asked me to write about being genderqueer for the site, I was initially hesitant; I wasn’t quite sure how to frame it, even though it was an issue I suspected I would be touching upon in the future, because I have many thoughts about gender and queerness and performance of gender and fashion, about what it is like to live in a body with broad hips and breasts, to enjoy wearing dresses and skirts, but not be a woman.
I knew I wanted to provide some kind of primer for readers, but I wasn’t sure how to begin it, and what to say in it. And then I saw this, and I knew. The lack of awareness about a term that reads so immediately and incisively to me as a slur is a reminder of the gaping distance between the cis and trans community. And it’s a reminder of why people like me need to be at places like this, and need to be vocal.
This is what a genderqueer person looks like, some days, some of the time, and I’m not shutting up about it.
1 I started using ou, which is pretentiously borrowed from Old English, and decided to mangle it further by obstinately refusing to decline it; ‘Ou took ou cat to the vet, pinching ouself at the size of the bill.’ Sometimes people use male pronouns for me too, usually by accident, and that’s okay too.
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