On Growing Up, and Coming Out as, Genderqueer
“Hey! You! We want to ask you something.”
It’s a warm afternoon outside. The sun beats down on the pavement. Sweat collects beneath the straps of my backpack. I’m wearing a loose t-shirt and jeans, walking home from middle school, when a group of my fellow preteens start shouting at me from across the street.
A few weeks ago, I cut my long hair short for the first time, in what was supposed to be a pixie cut, but ends up growing into an awkward mullet within just a couple of weeks. I’d nervously approached the stylist with a photo of the look I had wanted for years – and left feeling my hair had been completely butchered. (I am too traumatized by the experience to ask for a “boy” haircut for years afterward.)
The kids from my school are still shouting at me across the empty street. Traffic is sparse. There are no distractions to draw their attention away.
“We made a bet. Are you a boy or are you a girl?”
I turn away and keep walking. Is my face burning because of the sun overhead or because of a humiliated flush spreading across my cheeks? If I pretend not to hear them, maybe they’ll leave me alone. It’s not the first time since cutting my hair that someone’s told me I look like a boy, but it is the most embarrassing scenario by far.
“We made a bet. Are you a boy or are you a girl?”
“Hey! Come on! Come back!”
I lengthen my strides to try to put as much distance between us as I possibly can.
Running away isn’t what I want to do. I want to scream and shout. I want to use my backpack, weighted down with thick textbooks, as a bludgeon. But there are more of them than there are of me, and I’m already halfway home. I reach the end of the street and dart around a corner. They don’t follow.
It’s not that I care about the question being asked – although I think it’s a stupid one: puberty hit me at a traumatically early age, my naturally skinny childhood frame suddenly weighted down with thick wide hips and cumbersome breasts, seemingly overnight. The transformation from child into sex object is distressing enough without others pretending it’s not obvious.
But that’s not what cuts me down to the bone. It’s the tone of voice. The precise choice of words. The unspoken, clearly telegraphed implication:
You don’t dress or act like the other girls. What are you, some kind of freak?
I’m not like the “other girls,” of course. But I don’t really understand that yet. In fact, I don’t understand exactly why for years.
They say that coming out never ends. You can’t pull aside everyone you’ll ever meet in your life to a single place and time and proclaim, “I’m queer!”
You have to gauge every new person you meet. You have to carefully appraise if it’s safe to tell them who you really are – if they’ll embrace and accept you, go on with their lives with a shrug, or if they’ll turn on you without warning.
So, at first, you play weird little games to divine the future. You casually mention a news article about gay marriage to see if they shudder. During a conversation about a popular film, you mention an actress identifies as bisexual to see if they roll their eyes.
You ask if they’re religious, or how they voted, so you know whether to expect a lecture on the fact that you’re headed to Hell. You mention past relationships or current partners in the abstract, gritting your teeth to avoid mentioning gender at all – at least until you’re sure how it will be received.
And once you gather the courage to confide in someone, what happens if they don’t understand? What do you do when they look you in the eye, after you’ve painstakingly built up your emotional reserves and they say:
“I don’t understand that. I’ve never felt like that.”
Or, perhaps the worst responses of all:
“Well, if you’re interested in men too, isn’t it easier just to be straight?”
“Well, if you don’t want to change your body, isn’t it easier to call yourself a woman?”
No. It’s not easier to pretend that half of your identity doesn’t exist. It’s not easier to deny yourself the opportunity to approach someone you have feelings for simply because there are people who will judge you. And it’s sure as shit not easy to spend years of your life hearing people use words and pronouns to describe you that simply feel wrong.
But sometimes there’s no alternative. Especially when people don’t believe your identity is real anyway.
I was never a tomboy growing up. Quite the opposite, in fact: I loved fairy tales about princesses and everything to do with them. I loved mermaids and magic and happy endings. But something tells me that if I’d been born and raised a boy, I would have loved those stories just as much – because despite my obsession with the Disney canon, I never felt particularly comfortable wearing pink frills and lace myself.
I always bristled when adults tried to tell me what girls could and couldn’t do – and growing up in the conservative Mormon culture, there were no shortage of adults willing to make their opinions on the subject known. My family told me that I could do anything a boy could do. My Sunday school teachers and neighbors often told me differently.
Being uncomfortable with gender roles and expectations doesn’t make you gender variant. It makes you a feminist. And long before I was comfortable using the word to describe myself, I was certainly that.
I know plenty of women who flip the finger at the patriarchy and live their lives however they’re comfortable, without feeling a need to divorce themselves from identifying with their assigned sex. My discomfort was real, but it’s never been precisely the same.
Being uncomfortable with gender roles and expectations doesn’t make you gender variant. It makes you a feminist.
Yes, I hate being told what I can and can’t do, simply because of my biology. I’m sure almost everyone does, at some point or another. However, my problem went deeper than that: I felt stifled being told what I was and was not.
I have never in my adult life felt comfortable being described as a woman. I have never felt comfortable being told I’m pretty, or sweet, or bitchy, or hysterical, or any number of loaded terms that are only ever used to describe women. It’s not that I mind compliments. I laugh off most insults. But I want them to be words that mean something to everyone, no matter who they’re applied to.
I’ve never felt comfortable, in those rare and private glimpses of conversation between two people who know me speaking about me, being referred to as “she.” Writing bios for myself as an author and artist, I’ve always attempted to avoid pronouns entirely, but usually settled for keeping them to a bare minimum. I generally cringe when I see them in the wild.
It’s not that I think there’s anything wrong with being a woman. I have loved, and continue to love, many women deeply.
It’s just that the words don’t fit. Wearing them is like slipping into a suit with all the wrong measurements – too tight under the arms, too loose at the waist, slipping and sliding and in need of constant adjustment to stay somewhat presentable.
But growing up Mormon, what’s the alternative? Living in a society where everything, even the secular, is sharply divided into masculine and feminine categories, what are you supposed to do instead?
In my teen years, I grew my hair out long. Not necessarily in an effort to appear feminine – I frequently wore the baggiest and most unflattering outfits I could find to compensate for my discomfort with the notion – but because I was afraid to cut it short again.
I remembered being sneered at in the street. I remembered being teased at school. I remembered wanting to sink into the earth beneath my feet and disappear. I remembered running. I remembered waiting for my hair to grow back out, until I could fade into the background once again.
It gave me something to hide behind when I wanted to disappear. It formed a barrier between me and the world around me. It kept people from asking questions about why I didn’t wear makeup and why I wore baggy button-up shirts. No one stopped me in the street demanding that I explain my gender to them.
It was too long and thick to style properly – nothing would stay in place for more than an hour. I used entire bottles of shampoo and conditioner maintaining it. I spent twenty minutes brushing it out each day. It took hours to dry. If I went out in winter, my still-damp tresses would turn to ice. In the summer, my scalp would grow soggy and greasy with sweat.
Still, everyone around me loved my hair. They missed no opportunity to tell me how beautiful it was. Friends would reach out and braid it, luxuriating in each strand. Hairdressers would offer their services for the chance to work with it.
Strangers at the store would try to touch it. Fellow high school students would pull it as they passed. Men would yell at me from car windows. (Women sometimes, too: petty, insulting jabs about how I wasn’t as special as I thought I was.) Family friends would try to force me to swear I would never cut it, as if my life were a Biblical fable and my waist-length hair the source of my power.
I couldn’t take it. I let my sister shave it all off one day when I was twenty-one.
I couldn’t take it. I let my sister shave it all off one day when I was twenty-one. I donated it to charity in a thick, two-and-a-half-foot long coil. I’d wanted to do it for years, but I suppose to everyone else in my life it looked like a spur of the moment decision.
Everyone kept asking me why I did it. (In fact, for years, people have continued asking me this question upon meeting me, as if a woman with very short hair were an unknown novelty.) They seemed confused when I explained that I hated the maintenance of long hair and the way it seemed to make me public property. But at the heart of it, my reasons were simple: I cut it all off to try to find where I ended and everything else began.
People started mistaking me for a boy again. I started letting people call me whatever they wanted, and I didn’t correct them. I perfected the art of responding without missing a beat when the confusion was benign, and of staring straight ahead, unflinching and unresponsive when it wasn’t.
Sometimes they’d call me “sir” in the checkout lane. Sometimes they’d call me a dyke and shout at me from the sidewalk. Sometimes women would approach me in public compliment me on my courage, telling me they’d always wanted to cut their hair short, but had been afraid to try it.
I haven’t let it grow out past my shoulders again.
I was so frustrated, I made a painting about it.
It’s hard enough to come to terms with your sexual orientation when you have firm grasp of your gender. You can point to the people you’re attracted to and know exactly what it means. If you’re a girl who likes other girls, you’re a lesbian. If you’re a girl who likes boys, you’re straight. If you like boys and girls, that’s a little harder to get your head around – but there’s a word for that, too.
But what if you don’t feel like a girl? On the inside? What are you, then? And what does that say about the people who are attracted to you? What does that make your relationship? What does that make them?
I spent long periods of my teen years wondering if I was crazy.
I didn’t feel like a girl. But I didn’t feel like a boy, either. I didn’t hate feminine things – just the way that embracing them made people around me treat me. I thought for a time I must have multiple personalities, some male entity lurking inside me, sowing confusion. Some other part of me, walled off and inaccessible. I thought I must be the only person in the world who felt this way.
I spent long periods of my teen years wondering if I was crazy.
I thought, briefly, that maybe I was trans. But I didn’t hate my body – or, rather, the things I disliked about it had nothing to do with my sex. I would have loved to be thinner, and maybe a bit taller – who wouldn’t? – but I never wanted to change my sex. I browsed the internet and read the accounts of people who’d transitioned – I didn’t feel wholly comfortable in my skin, but I didn’t feel the intense rush of dysphoria they described. I looked into sex reassignment surgery, and knew immediately that whatever I felt did not leave me so desperate that I would put myself through a series of lengthy, invasive procedures or a lifetime of hormone therapy.
When I first read the word “genderqueer,” at the age of eighteen or nineteen, it was a revelation. There was a word for what I was. There were other people who felt this way. I wasn’t crazy.
But I knew that nobody in my life would understand what it meant if I tried to explain it to them, either.
And so, apart from a few half-hearted efforts, I didn’t. In high school and my early adult years, I cultivated crushes on people who were emotionally unavailable to avoid the conversation. I pushed away people who claimed they were interested, because I thought they’d pick up and leave as soon as they knew the real me.
Later, I started telling people I was romantically involved with, or wanted to be, or was being pursued by. The straight men would act uncomfortable and double down on their efforts to mold me into the girlfriend they desired. The queer women would shrug their shoulders and tell me it didn’t make sense to them. I managed to date a few queer men who didn’t necessarily understand my experience – but who also weren’t bothered by having a girlfriend who sometimes talked, acted, and behaved more like a stereotypical man than they did. After all, they’d dated guys before me.
And at least, in my more intimate relationships, I had that.
I married one of those men on a lovely spring day. No one walked me down the aisle. We wrote our own vows. A few days beforehand, we visited a barbershop together so we’d look well-groomed and sharp for the most important day of our life together. We wore matching suits. There was no bouquet.
The law may have seen us in that moment as a heterosexual couple, but make no mistake: that was a legal loophole. It was, and remains, a queer marriage.
Over a decade ago, no one considered the singular “they” a viable personal pronoun. How could I even begin to approach people about it? If you used it in an academic paper, your instructor would outline it in bright red ink and insist you change it to “he or she.” If you requested that people use it when referring to you, they would laugh in your face.
Really, they still do.
I’ve seen other genderqueer writers mocked and harassed by supposedly-progressive outlets when they request people use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to them.
I’ve seen other genderqueer writers mocked and harassed by supposedly-progressive outlets when they request people use gender-neutral pronouns to refer to them. I’ve seen “feminists” attack nonbinary writers and accuse them of throwing “other women” under the bus. Recently, a teacher in a Portland, Oregon suburb filed a lawsuit against their school district after colleagues refused to use their chosen pronouns and attempted to make their life miserable. Though I live in the first state to formally recognize nonbinary gender as a legal identity, if I went to court to have it changed, I still wouldn’t be able to get a new driver’s license or passport.
How do you build a normal life when this is what you’ll be faced with when you come out? How do you talk to coworkers about anything personal? How do you fill out any legal paperwork or talk to your doctor? How do you approach job interviews where you may be penalized for not wearing makeup or judged for looking too “alternative” (in other words, queer)?
How do you live each day without fear, or at least trepidation, when there are no federal nondiscrimination protections in place for gender nonconforming people – and when it’s been a years-long uphill battle to convince LGBT advocacy organizations to include anyone who doesn’t look and act straight in their agenda? When there’s a documented wage gap between gender conforming people and those who are visibly queer?
I know there are many people in my life who wonder why it took until age 30 for me to come out about being nonbinary, when I’ve been open about my sexual identity for half my life.
This is why.
All I’ve ever wanted was to be treated with respect in my personal life, and to be taken seriously in the professional realm. Presenting as an openly queer, mixed-race woman made this challenging enough.
I need to be able to speak openly and honestly about my gender to the people in my life to feel like I’m making authentic connections. But I worry that by writing about it, I’m making myself the butt of a joke. I don’t know what’s going to happen now, and I would be lying if I said I weren’t anxious, despite the support my network has offered me.
I don’t know if this will shut doors for me. I don’t know if this will make me unhireable. I don’t know if I’ll start getting weird(er) hate mail in response to the work I publish. I don’t know if this will throw my decade of hard-earned publishing experience out the window, with editors reading my bio and tossing my manuscripts in the trash.
I suppose only time will tell.
But at least now when I request that people refer to me as “they,” and people question whether it’s legitimate, I can point to the Miriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the APA Style Guide, and the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year to prove it’s not an outrageous or unprecedented request. And that’s not nothing.