This essay was originally posted on my personal site, egrollman.com.
Over a year ago, I wrote a short essay to reflect on the dynamic and fluid (rather than fixed and static) nature of my gender identity. Similar to Dr. Betsy Lucal’s essay, “What it Means to be Gendered Me” in Gender & Society, I drew on personal experiences to demonstrate academic conceptualizations of gender and, in turn, used these conceptualizations to make sense of my own gender identity. But, the essay lacked one critical thing: the bravery to share it publicly, as I had initially intended.
Recently, an opinion piece in Out magazine, “Snoopy and Me” by Michael Narkunski, caught my eye. Narkunski reflects on being distressed by feeling that his sense of gender does not fit with the narrow (heterosexist and cissexist) definition of a “man.” He sought the care of a therapist, whom he assumed would finally “diagnose” him as transgender. Instead, she offered him this:
“Being gay is hard,” my therapist said. “You have a dearth of role models, and you’re constantly subjected to gender norms that don’t apply. You have to work more on learning to be happy and creating an identity to be pleased with, not transferring yourself over to a whole new one.”
I see myself in Narkunski’s essay. And, I admire his bravery for sharing such a painful and personal story. In fact, his bravery has inspired me to finally share my own below.
My Gender Is A Journey
I do not see gender as destiny anymore than I see sex-assigned-at-birth as destiny. These are crude categories and identities to distinguish one set of characteristics, experiences, expectations, and opportunities from others. While they do include predictions about what one’s life will be like, they are not sophisticated enough to determine how one’s life will transpire. Gender norms change, both because of changing expressions of one’s gender identity and changing how one can express one’s gender identity. And, gender norms, identities, and expressions are deeply tied to other axes of oppression: racism, heterosexism, classism, ableism, fatphobia, and xenophobia. So, in addition to changing gender norms over time, there is variation in who we are as gendered people by virtue of our other identities and statuses – and these, too, change over time.
For me, my gender identity and how I express it are both cause and consequence of my body, my experiences in this world, my ideology and values, and my relationships with other people. Let me describe each in greater detail.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Body
I became a fat child around age 8. Since then, my body has never been one that reflects hegemonic masculinity. Even after losing an extreme amount of weight before my senior year of high school, I was still flabby and unmasculine in the normative sense. The greatest struggle of all regarding my body has been my breasts. I rarely go swimming and, when I do, I tend to wear a black t-shirt. (There is a reason wet t-shirt contests feature white shirts. I learned that lesson first-hand, unfortunately.) I was teased as a child because I had breasts as large as, if not larger, than girls my age. Though I have a hairy chest, I still have a part of my body that is a visible betrayal of my maleness.
At one point, I seriously considered surgery to have my breasts removed. Throughout my adolescence, my primary physician repeatedly offered to have “those” removed – never explicitly naming that I had breasts. The first time I visited Richmond, VA was to meet with a cosmetic surgeon. The cost was prohibitive, and there was no guarantee that I would keep fat off of that part of my body, or that the scars would not prevent me from going shirtless in public. So, I decided against it. Funny, before my then-HMO agreed to pay for some of the mastectomy, they had to verify that I did not develop breasts due to intersexuality (or Disorders of Sex Development [DSD]). They provided an ultrasound examination on my testicles, and a hormone test to assess levels of estrogen and testosterone via my urine. Thankfully (by their standards), I was not intersex – just fat. Looking back, it was an interesting moment: fatness or intersexuality were two possible causes of my non-normative male body.
Ironically, having breasts as a male-bodied individual is a benefit when I wear drag. I do not need to stuff a bra, nor don a breast plate, because I am naturally endowed in that area. Still, my body image issues as a fat person limit how far I go with my drag. Too fat to fit the ideal image of a man translates into way too fat for the woman I would like to portray in drag. So, I do not shave. I have embraced my genderfuck self – high heel boots, a revealing top, and a blonde bombshell wig.
Clothes, too, have a way of reminding me that my body does not fit (sometimes literally) into society’s ideal image of a man. The most common gripe I have when clothing shopping is the unflattering fit on my chest. Men’s shirts and dress clothes are not designed with breasts in mind. The clothing-related body image issues have been heightened lately because dress clothes demand a tighter fit. You will never, ever, ever find me in a dress shirt without a suit jacket or a vest (or both). The breasts must be hidden, and a necktie will not cut it. In casual clothes, loose button down shirts are a staple in my wardrobe. If men were socially “allowed” to have breasts, maybe I would be showing them off with pride, rather than hiding them in shame.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Experiences
From age 5, I knew I was not like other boys. Girls and their worlds always seemed more fun, interesting, and evolved. The only close male friend whom I had only wanted to wrestle. I did occasionally, but it seemed boring to me. How were we to discuss current events (albeit through a child’s eyes) and get to know one another at a deep level if every time we played I ended up in a headlock? In elementary school, I hung with the less popular girls at recess. We discussed plans for a play with an anti-violence message, but the plans never came to fruition. Boys remained of little interest to me (not even romantically) because they seemed incapable of meaningful interpersonal relationships.
I should not have been surprised that my parents kept pushing sports, especially football. I attended basketball camp a few summers, just until I complained enough to get them to let me attend the regular day camp. Yes, I chose arts and crafts over yet another game of “shirts and skins.” In their final ultimatum, while I was in high school – football or JROTC – I chose the latter. Interestingly, I loved it. There was an academic component with emphasis on citizenship and character-building. And, I loved having the opportunity to take on leadership positions. I even served as president of the Kitty Hawk JROTC Honor Society. (No, I did not name it that. I would have been subtler than “kitty.”)
But, at a younger age, they bought me gender-neutral toys, and even a dollhouse. My action figures, including X-men and Power Rangers, would go on dangerous missions, but not without steamy romances and personal struggles. While there were elements of boy, girl, and gender-neutrality, they all blended together in ways that made sense to me – an emphasis on people and relationships. I suppose that is the ticket to raising a sociologist.
Gender As Cause And Consequence Of My Values
My gender identity has evolved alongside my gender ideology. In college, exposed to new ideas about gender, sexuality, feminism, and queer politics, my understanding of my own gender and sexuality changed. I began to accept that “man” reflects too little of my own experiences, interests, and values. So, I adopted a genderqueer identity. And, I better understood my attraction to masculinity as an expression, rather than male bodies. So, identifying as gay no longer made sense because I do not see myself as a man who desires other men; “man” and “men” are deceptively simplistic. Queer as an identity better reflects my own gender identity and the gender expression of those whom I find attractive. Also, queer reflects my intersectional, radical politics about gender and sexuality in ways that “gay” does not.
However, I have wavered somewhat from my queer and genderqueer identities in recent years. I have become more aware of the infinite ways in which I am privileged as a (presumably) cisgender man. So long as I dress, act, and relate to others as a man, I am privileged as a man by society. So, it has felt disingenuous to identify as genderqueer in absence of a genderqueer expression.
Admittedly, I desperately cling to what little masculinity I wield for safety reasons. In everyday interactions, I would fear the violence, harassment, and discrimination that would come if I were more visibly queer. I fear that I would take a major hit to my status at work. Being a man feels like the only resource that I have available to overcome the oppressed statuses of being queer and Black. The other challenge is not knowing what expressing a genderqueer identity would entail. I am balding, so I cannot adopt a queer hairstyle short of wearing a wig. I have moved away from piercings and tattoos to keep my professional (i.e., middle-class) credibility. Frankly, many things that come to mind simply express femininity atop masculinity (e.g., earrings, nail polish, women’s clothing).
The Journey Continues
To be completely honest, I have wondered whether I am trans. The question has been raised in my mind, but then dismissed because I realize I have no interest in changing my body. My issue is with how I adorn and use it. Once, riding a train home from a night out with friends, my brain screamed, “shit I’m transgender!” I woke up the next day hung-over, laughing at the idea. But, I really cannot say with confidence that being trans is outside of the realm of possibility. I do not say this to make a mockery of trans people’s experiences, identities, and struggles. Nor do I mean to suggest that my dilemma is anything like that of a trans person. I just cannot say for certain who I will be in the future, especially in feeling disconnected from the rigid categories of man and woman.
Maybe the time has come when I should begin playing with gender with more bravery and intentionality. Rather than going along for the ride and trying to make sense of who I am, I should start defining and expressing my gender for myself. I imagine that will be the only way to carve out a space for me to exist outside of the rigid gender binary.