Gender is a social construct – it’s been one of my favorite phrases since my first Women’s and Gender Studies class. I’ve read academic theories about and deconstructions of the gender binary, personal narratives, talked with trans and genderqueer friends about their experiences. I thought I had a good handle on everything, until I realised that I was trapped in that binary, too.
I was a tomboy for most of my childhood, wanting to play with my male cousins, but instead hiding away in my oldest cousin’s room with my sister as she painted our nails, or being frustrated when they wouldn’t let me roughhouse with them because I was a girl (at which point, I decided to hit them – somewhat playfully – because they wouldn’t retaliate, and I thought they were stupid for doing so). All that sounds like my inner baby feminist showing itself, but at some point I got this fantasy into my head that I had been born a boy, or partly male, but my parents had made me a girl instead and one day I was going to discover the truth and life would be better. Apparently I was an imaginative child. When I was maybe nine or ten years old, in a fit of ‘but you’d let a boy do insert-activity-here’, my mother asked if I didn’t like being a girl (the implication of the question being did I want to be a boy) and I said no, that wasn’t true, and the conversation ended. But while I said one thing, I remember clearly thinking the exact opposite but knowing, somehow, that I couldn’t say that because it would be bad. And so life continued, a stream of begrudgingly wearing skirts and dresses and makeup and push-up bras, and eventually coming to a vague state of enjoying, or at least accepting, all of it as part of being grown up. The approval I got from my mother, from other family members, from friends and peers – ‘oh wow, you look so grown up!’, ‘damn, you look good!’, squeals of excitement when I showed up places in makeup – and even my ability to see myself reflected in images of femininity around me was enough to make me hide away all of my childhood fantasies.
Over the past year or two, though, doubts about my image began to creep back. For a while I chalked it up to just needing to find the right ‘look’ – I wasn’t quite femme, but obviously I wasn’t butch, so maybe chapstick lesbian would work for me – but whatever it was, was still within the confines of being a vaguely feminine woman. And when I settled/gave up on finding a ‘look’, I chalked it up to my self-esteem and body image problems, a history being subtly (or not so subtly) told to lose weight or dress a certain way if I wanted to look good, resulting in my never feeling entirely comfortable in my appearance whether it be weight, hair, muscle definition, strength, or a general feeling of inadequacy. But everyone deals with stuff like that, so who was I to complain about it and make myself feel special? After a while, these feelings narrowed down more and more to my feminine presentation, and realising that maybe I enjoyed passing as a boy at Genderfunk “too much”, but I still pushed them off playing the Oppression Olympics by convincing myself I was being absurd, that other people had real struggle with this, and I had no right to equate my petty self-esteem issues with that. But shit hit the fan as I was getting out of the shower one night a few weeks ago – I looked in the mirror and thought ‘hey, if I didn’t have boobs, I’d look like a guy!’ and for a brief moment was excited by that. The flash of clarity, that moment of ‘yes, that is how I want to look’ shocked me and I realised that what was seen cannot be unseen, and my years of ostritching my way through life wasn’t really gonna cut it anymore.
So what does that mean? Well, fuck if I have a straight answer right now. I’ve come to realize, though, that a big part of my struggle has been dealing with the gender binary; I’m strongly attached to my identity as a queer woman, I’m on the whole just fine with my body, I like some “girly” clothes and all that jazz, and most days I don’t even register consciously any discomfort with my gender or gender presentation. But then I have the days where I want to butch it up, when wearing a dress makes me feel nauseous and I look in the mirror and the visual clashes so strongly with the self-image I have in my head. I look at guys and wish that I could look just a little bit like them, and when my girlfriend told me I looked handsome, it made me feel really good, but my inner angsty feminist riles at the thought of being associated so closely with the male species. And so I get confused because how can I like some aspects of my female identity but at the same time want so desperately to be more masculine in other ways? Reading over that sentence, even I think it sounds stupidly simple, but at least for me, it’s a whole heck of a lot harder to walk the talk. The gender binary system we have doesn’t allow (at least not easily, by any means) a gender or gender expression that doesn’t equate with female or male, woman or man. So I’m trying to find that space in between, navigating reconciling my academic and theoretical knowledge with my feelings. Wish me luck.