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Academics, raise your hand if you have trouble sitting down to write in the morning? Now, how many of you find that your procrastination stems from trying to figure out who you are in this world? I do — and, today is one of those days. In being a good little solider in NCFDD‘s Faculty Success Program bootcamp, I set aside this time to prepare my keynote speech — “Blogging for (a) change in higher education” — for next week’s Media Pre-Conference, ahead of the American Sociological Association annual meeting. Instead, I am blogging (for a change) because my head, heart, and spirit are stuck this morning in the question, “who am I?” — at least with regard to gender.
I acknowledge that I am a bit self-absorbed, less because of arrogance or egotism, but more because of fear, self-doubt, and anxiety about my survival and success. I am incredibly self-aware and reflexive, perhaps to a fault. I am constantly trying to find meaning in the world, and to make it a better place. My gender identity, though, is frequently up for internal debate because I lack a clear, static sense of who I am. Is certainty about one’s gender identity a privilege afforded exclusively to cisgender people — those people who wake each day knowing who they are, and who go to bed each night having had their identity affirmed through every interaction and by every institution they enter throughout the day? Once again, I canot get right to my work challenging patriarchy, cissexism, heterosexism, and racism out in the world because I’m consumed trying to figure out who I am in the world. So much for the unlimited supply of cisgender male privilege I was promised when assigned male at birth.
You see, I recall as early as age 5 that my sense of gender does not align with the sex I was assigned at birth. After openly writing about my gender as a journey, and my developing sense of being non-binary, my mom commented that she doesn’t recall me telling her (in my 5 year old voice) that I should have been born a girl. I found girls my age to be incredibly interesting in their depth, complexity, and compassion; boys seemed one-dimensional in their desire to connect purely on a detached, physical level through sports. In hindsight, perhaps being a girl in a boy’s body was the best I could come up with to name what I later realized was a queer sexuality.
In 2003 — the year I turned 18, and transitioned from high school to college — I passed the coming out test with flying colors. After years of hiding in the closet, I left it and never looked back. But, upon taking courses in sociology and gender studies, I began to realize my uniqueness was not limited to being a male-assigned-at-birth who is sexually and emotionally attracted to men. I found my attraction to masculinity extended beyond its expression in cis men, and that my attraction to maleness was not limited to those with a masculine gender expression. And, I began recognizing that the category of (cis) man was incredibly narrow for all of my queer fabulousness — or that it didn’t fit at all. So, I went off to graduate school proudly identifying as genderqueer to account for my queer gender identity.
I won’t once again rehash the role the traumatizing chapter of graduate school has played in my gender journey. Let’s just say mainstream sociology is not a place that welcomes playing with, fucking with, or transitioning gender. I have grad school to thank for putting me back in the closet, at least in terms of being genderqueer. I have slowly come out again quite publicly, now as non-binary in large part because I have begun to recover from that trauma.
But, if anything, I feel as if I have been hiding in plain sight. To the extent that people have internet access and actually give a damn, they can easily find that I am non-binary. I’ve written about it and I sign my emails with a note that I use they/them gender pronouns. There are even a few pictures of me in various states of drag. I have even gotten comfortable enough to share pictures of myself donning various gender expressions to personalize my lectures on gender identity and expression.
You know — but, the joke is on me, because you can easily forget. I dress like a dude — partly because of comfort and partly because of fear of violence and discrimination. I don’t want to admit that the slow genocide of Black trans women is perhaps one factor that has held me back from owning trans womanhood. Though I don’t quite feel comfortable in the category of cisgender man, I present as such on a daily basis, and am rewarded accordingly. When I put on a suit each day next week at the sociology conference, I’ll easily pass as a cis man, perhaps even white in a certain light, and maybe even straight if I’m not feeling particularly excited or chatty. I hesitate to fuck with gender at the conference for fear it will be seen as too political (somehow more political than is any other gender expression), for fear it will distract from my message, and for fear of harassment. But, I feel I remain complicit in misgendering myself by not being non-binary “enough.” What’s a non-binary unicorn to do?
Fear of others’ reaction aside, I cannot seem to get passed the heavy emphasis on proving my gender identity through my attire and appearance. My partner has the exclusive pass to see what’s in my pants, but the entire world will take me at my word that I am “biologically” male (with all of the required parts) because of the masculine attire I wear. But, I’m afraid no one believes I’m genuinely non-binary because I don’t look it. I don’t don a queer, colorful hairstyle (umm, thanks a lot early onset baldness). I don’t wear make-up or nail polish (meh, too lazy). I only seem to wear feminine clothing on special occasions (it’s fun for a night, but seems really impractical otherwise).
My preference for masculine attire has less to do with the gender I wish to express than simply being comfortable in loose-fitting clothes. Unlike other non-binary folks like Jacob Tobia and Alok Vaid-Menon (of Dark Matter Poetry) who frequently share fab pictures of themselves, I generally don’t feel compelled to express my non-binaryness through dress. For me, it’s about how I feel in my spirit, my mind, my politics, and how I relate to other people. Frankly, I’m non-binary in all of the ways you can’t readily see on the outside.
Maybe this is also connected to race and body size. (You have got to read this essay by Ashleigh Shackleford on the complex intersections among gender non-conformity from Blackness and fatness.) When I Google images of non-binary, I see dozens of images of thin white androgynous people; I don’t really see anyone who looks like me. And, of what I see, I am drawn to people I assume to be female-assigned-at-birth in masculine or butch attire; my eyes skip over the (thin white) likely male-assigned-at-birth individuals in feminine attire.
The best I can do to make sense of this complexity is a sense of agnosticism about gender. In my heart of hearts, I’d rather not constrain myself to a particular gender category or gender destiny. The two main options — woman and man — suck. I’ve thought, these days, it would almost be easier for me if I just identified as a trans woman; increasingly, Americans know at least something about trans people. (Like my father, the average person likely would respond, “non-binary? what the hell is BINARY?) But, I have realized I am not a trans woman because I am not interested in attempting to authentically perform the rather constraining category of woman. And, the category of man is pretty shortsighted, too. There’s always agender, but I can’t wrap my head around not identifying in gendered terms despite not being able to opt out of the gender system.
There is no escaping being gendered and doing gender!
How ridiculous this all seems when I am well aware that gender is a social construction. Drawing from the Thomas and Thomas theorem, to which many intro sociology students are exposed, if people define gender as real, it is real in its consequences. There is no physical or biological basis for gender. Yet, it is a fundamental organizing principle in society; gender shapes and constrains every social interaction, social institution, and every individuals’ sense of self. Even if I decide I simply don’t believe in gender, I can’t escape its influence in my life. And, pretending to be “gender-blind” would be just as dangerous as is trying to be “color-blind.”
So, I’m left with three options: 1) identify as a cis man (because I easily read as one), but queer the hell out of the category where possible; 2) identify as non-binary, and define for myself what that entails and what that looks like (if anything); or 3) do nothing, and just awkwardly move from gendered interaction to gendered interaction. I’ve gotta say though, I’m pretty lazy about getting dressed in the morning. I suppose I can live up to my declaration to keep playing with gender and to do gender boldly (to boldly go where no queer has gone before?), but, as a gender agnostic, I keep wondering whether there is more to gender than its expression in clothing, hair, and make-up. Can’t I be a woman today, even if I’m wearing a loose black t-shirt and bagging blue gym shorts? Can’t I be non-binary without dressing like a skinny white androgynous hipster? Can’t I be a man, even when I’m rocking a blonde bombshell wig, a sexy red dress, and knee-high boots?
More questions than answers, as usual when I’m reflecting on this gender journey of mine. But, at least I can get to work now. Thanks for reading.
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.
I won’t lie – I pride myself on my pro-feminist ideology, further extended and nuanced through a black queer lens through which to view the world. I spend a considerable amount of time agonizing over the privileges that have been bestowed upon me because of what is assumed to be between my legs and its extension into my self-presentation to the world. I am aware that, even with a genderqueer identity, my masculine gender expression, especially in terms of clothing and name, grants me an indefinite number of conveniences, leg-ups, head-starts, and other forms of unfairly distributed advantages that are denied to women and transpeople. But, no matter how hard I work to recognize and reject my male privilege, there will always be a block of privileges that are unknown to or unseen by me; hence, this is how privilege sustains itself – it is invisible to its beneficiaries, even those who fight to challenge inequality.
Again, another admission: I wish I could dress and behave in ways that more accurately express my genderqueer identity. But, I’m both too comfortable in boys’ clothing and too afraid/unmotivated to deal with the expected harassment, violence, outcasting, and discrimination that I would face if I were to stop dressing in masculine clothing. So, dressing in feminine or androgynous attire for Halloween is the next best thing. This year, I donned a feminized and sexualized army uniform. I supplemented the costume with my own blonde wig, leopard print bra (that I stuffed for additional bust), fishnet stockings, and men’s combat boots.
My goal was not to pass as a woman, so I didn’t shave my facial hair, legs, or chest – and all of these areas were exposed. If anything, I wanted to be a sexy expression of both masculinity (i.e., hair, boots, and failure to feminize my voice or behavior) and femininity. I would say that the numerous compliments from friends indicated a success!
But, from others at the local gay bar I attended for Halloween fun and dancing, I found that complimenting was not limited to pleasant appraisals of my outfit. In fact, the first two people that approached me decided to grab my breasts in order to measure their authenticity – both were men dressed as drag queens. Then came the man dress as a mail carrier who insisted on giving me a chance to select a free drink from his bag of random goodies. (To his disappointment, I pulled a note that said “happy Halloween!”, the same note I pulled a second time later. Eventually, he just pressed to buy me a drink and I caved so he’d leave me alone.)
Then, there was the heavily intoxicated woman, whose costume wasn’t much more than a ball gown, who decided to give me what seemed to be a mammogram because she was so fascinated by my breasts. (As an overweight male, yes, I have breasts, but I stuffed with a couple pairs of underwear in a way that pushed up the real breasts to achieve an authentic busty look.) There were long, shameless stares; an attempt to see if I had “tucked” my penis; a few anonymous grabs of my butt; two “motor boats” (essentially vibrating one’s head between a woman’s breasts); an attempted kiss by the cowboy friend of the mail carrier, to whom I was introduced as the mail carrier’s boyfriend; and a bit of following during the night (mainly by the cowboy and mail carrier).
I do not attempt here to suggest that I now know what it’s like to be a woman. This experience was limited to a few hours, which were otherwise fun. Most of my “admirers” were men, though there were a few drag queens, one drag king, and one woman. And, this happening in a gay bar rather than a predominantly-heterosexual bar makes this experience somewhat qualitatively different than a night a woman might experience. But, this experience, brought on my by appearance, is one that I do not otherwise have access to. Even if different, I was able to gain some insight into what it’s like to be stared at, felt up, given “free” drinks under the implicit expectation of sex in return, and followed. I could see that others, even if in masculine attire, who bore some skin were often the target of aggressive, sexual attention. In that women face greater pressure to wear very revealing clothing, this skin-as-invitation-for-harassment experience is faced to an enormously greater degree by women than by men.
And, I am certain that any complaints I would make about being harassed would be rebuked with, “well, what did you expect, coming dressed like that?” At one point, I felt it was implied when I did complain. I am well aware of the victim-blaming that is practiced when women are victimized by sexual assault, rape, and intimate partner violence, but I had no idea that victim-blaming was so pervasive, that to bare one’s skin is read as an explicit, intentional invitation to be gawked at, fondled, and propositioned. The double-bind is ever-apparent: wear sexy, revealing clothing in order to get attention, be desirable, and not to be dismissed as an inauthentic or unsuccessful woman; but, then, when you do bare some skin, be aware that you are essentially “asking for” any and everything that comes your way.
Back To Life, Back To Reality?
We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming. The drag is off and I’m back to my usual genderqueer-identified and masculine-expression self. Though inappropriate touching, staring, and commenting are always a possibility, the rate at which I experienced them last night will never be seen again unless I re-transform into my sexy GI Beyonce self. But, this unintended breaching experiment’s results will not disappear. I am debating, today, about whether to address this new found awareness of gendered sexual harassment and assault in my lecture tomorrow on sexual assault and rape. But, my fear is that my male privilege allows for me to speak openly about a one-time experience, while women and transpeople experience sexual assault and harassment, or at least the threat of it, on a daily basis. In some ways, I resign myself to capitalizing on the privileges I cannot avoid by speaking out against injustices that are otherwise dismissed as a woman’s issue, or a play of the “race card”, or cry-baby complaints.
In any event, even if my Halloween experience does nothing to help others become more aware of the rape-encouraging culture we live in and gendered violence more broadly, I find comfort in the eye-opening of at least one person: myself.