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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.
I am transgender.
Mostly, but not really.
Since age 5, or even birth — but, really only recently.
Am I making any sense? If not, it is because I have yet to make sense of my gender identity and expression for myself. I was 5 years old when I first acknowledged that my own sense of self, interests, and experiences bear little resemblance to what we define as “man” and “masculinity.” Early on, I knew that I wasn’t like other boys, and later learned that I like other boys. So, adopting a bisexual, and then gay, sexual identity made sense. But, with exposure to LGBT and women’s studies in college, I knew my uniqueness transcends whom I find attractive. So, upon discovering genderqueerness, I adopted that as my own, and began identifying as queer more broadly. Queer as an identity reflects my attraction to masculinities (no matter the bodies that expresses them) and maleness (no matter the genders it expresses); it also reflects that I do not neatly fit into the category of “man” (nor “woman” for that matter).
Joining the cult of academia, beginning with my graduate studies, proved to be a hard-right turn in my intellectual, professional, and personal development. There were blips of authenticity, resistance, and fierceness. I had a tongue ring for a month. Had both ears (re)pierced for a few months. Did a little drag. But, as I attempted to advance professionally, I caved to the pressures to be gender-conforming — both in my appearance and in my scholarship. As a researcher, I write with unwavering authority. When I present at academic conferences, I no longer bang on the podium, despite my internal anger about the issues of my research — discrimination, violence, oppression. Slowly, I have moved away from the full suit and tie look to teach, but that really just means no tie.
As a fat Black/multiracial genderqueer person, the implicit and explicit pressures to sever ties with my own identities, politics, and communities for the sake of professional success proved traumatizing. My own parents’ hesitation to accept my queer sexuality when I came out at 17 pales in comparison to the misery of graduate school. I am closer with my parents today than ever in my life — even after recently coming out as non-binary to them. (Mom: “Hmm, I saw this coming.” Dad: “Non-binary? What the hell is binary?!”) My grad school advisors… not so much, despite their supposed life-long investment in my career. And, I imagine the more I veer away from my training, the less likely they’ll care what becomes of me. In their eyes, it was my career to throw away, anyhow.
Late in my first year of college, I stopped taking calls from my parents. I made clear that they either accepted all of me or none of me. I was tired of lecturing them in public spaces about why I was taking classes in queer studies and “insisted” on being publicly out. My Dad eventually drove the 45 minutes to see me. (I wouldn’t have agreed to see him, but my dorm’s front desk called my room and said, “there is a cop here to see you!”) Refusing to look him in the eyes, I told him I was on full scholarship and could figure out summers, so I didn’t need them anymore. I didn’t see his heart break a little every time I said that. Eventually, he got through to me, we had a nice heart-to-heart over lackluster pizza, and have been close since.
I wish I had been as cavalier with my grad school advisors. Sure, I pushed back, and eventually took my current position despite their opposition. But, I only rarely stood up for myself, and regularly caved or at least tried to compromise. Their voices, with their goals for my career, remain in my brain. By design, grad school is about professional socialization — that is, a systematic program of teaching new values and ways of viewing and behaving in the world. And, the program was somewhat successful in re-programming me. But, not enough to do so completely. I am like Seven of Nine on Star Trek: Voyager; my scars are reminders that I once was Borg, and occasionally the Borg way of thinking trumps an independent perspective. (No, I’m not a Trekkie. Well, you can say I’m a second-generation Trekkie. I’m fairly fluent, but only talk Star Trek with my father.) So, even in deciding to write this essay after much back-and-forth, I feel I have a mini fierce queer activist on my left shoulder who is constantly reading the mini R1 minion on my right shoulder for filth. On my right, I hear, “but you’re a professor! Professors don’t write personal blog posts like this! Professors don’t blog! Professors aren’t trans…” And, there it is. The transphobic roots of my academic training.
Then, why write this essay? Wouldn’t my time be better spent working on a manuscript about transphobia than publicly agonizing over whether I am, indeed, transgender? I can’t right now. Aside from the fact that I am exhausted on so many levels after a difficult semester, I can’t sit down to do research on other people yet because I need work. Yesterday, when I sat down to make a list of research projects I wish to pursue over the next five years, it morphed into journaling about whether I am truly trans. There is internal work that cries for my attention when I sit down to do research that I tell myself is detached from me as a person. I need to write this. I allowed my personal journey and development to be interrupted during my academic training; I internalized (at least partially) the view that my scholarship is divorced from the scholar — the myth of “objectivity.”
But, why publicly? Why risk the potential consequences of transphobic and queerphobic discrimination in my profession? I won’t try to convince others of the benefits of baring your soul on the internet. But, for me, I feel a sense of release when I push back on the social forces that are constraining me, erasing me, killing me. Why should I privately struggle through the transphobia and cissexism that I have internalized when these are forces that affect us all? I know that I am not alone. I write because there may be others out there struggling, too. And, I know I’ll likely hear more hostility or at least crickets than any sort of appreciation. And, it’s not about feeling appreciated. It’s about sharing my journey with others — perhaps even those who will simply read and learn. To ignore the critics, and haters, and trolls, and bigots, and nay-sayers, I now just write for me — the me of the past who wishes he had stumble upon a professor who spoke so openly about their gender journey. I write for the future me — the me of 10 years from now who has no regrets, and sees sharing such vulnerability and uncertainty as just what you do.
And, see, now I feel better. The R1 minion stormed off. The mini queer activist is doing her victory dance, muttering “why y’all gagging so? She bring it to you every ball!”
Thank you for tuning into my journey.
I’m (not) sorry, but can we hold up on celebrating every white straight cisgender man who does anything minimally non-homophobic/biphobic/transphobic? I appreciate these efforts. And, I recognize the work of some as anti-homophobic, anti-biphobic, and/or anti-transphobic activism (you know, because not being a bigot is not the same thing as being an ally or advocate). In my opinion, they should be doing this, and giving a cookie to every self-proclaimed ally reinforces the message that bigotry is just a few bad apples and justice can be achieved through a few noteworthy, but infrequent acts.
Beyond that, I find that queer people do not get enough credit for existing, daring to be visible, authentic, happy. Coming out. Refusing to hide. Refusing to conform. Refusing to resign themselves to a miserable, invisible, inauthentic existence. Refusing to tolerate the status quo. Refusing to be excluded from important social and political institutions. Who could ever imagine a day that lawsuits are filed in the country’s most conservative states to force them to get up to speed with federal recognition of same-gender couples? Even in the face of opposition that has demonized queer people as promiscuous, drug-abusers, pedophiles, non-monogamous, and perverts, queer people have demanded to have their relationships recognized and celebrated.
We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it. Straight, cisgender people, get used to it! That is some brave, bold shit.
Oh, but it takes a lot to be so brave. Individual queer people are worn out from the daily toll of being out (or not) or making that negotiation minute by minute. Our relationships are tested as we navigate another, unexpected layer of the closet: queer love and sex. Do we embark on the war with our intolerant families? How do we navigate our communities? How do we navigate the law and institutions? All while not really seeing ourselves, seeing others like us, in public and the media. All while, at best, being tolerated but never fully accepted.
Sometimes, the well runs dry. Sometimes, it is easier to give it up — accept our second-class citizenship. The opposition can be so fierce that you begin to wonder why you fight — maybe you are asking for too much, too soon. Maybe you are naive to hope for better. Maybe you are even greedy for wanting equality in an unequal world. Maybe you should concede to the world’s desire to make you disappear.
Fuck. That. Noise.
My activism is not radical unless staying alive is radical. It is radical if equality is radical. We have got to fight — all of the time — so we can stop fighting. When one of us gets weary, another one should step up to carry on, and another to support the both of them. By continuously fighting, we carry on the legacy of those who fought before us, and improve the opportunities for future generations. It is not a war we started, but it is one we will have to win in order to survive.
So, I am celebrating queer warriors — all of them. And, I am honoring the fallen. Fight on. Thanks to our heterosexual and cisgender supporters and allies; keep fighting on, but celebrate the victories for queer justice — not yourselves.