For The Queers
What does it mean to be a woman? To be queer? Gender non-conforming?
I guess it’s safe to start with the moment that I realized (i.e. admitted to myself) that I was, in fact, not the cis-gender woman I thought I was for twenty-one years.
This moment began in the fall of 2016, it was almost Thanksgiving break. I was laying in my girlfriend’s twin-XL college dorm room bed. We were deep in conversation when she rolled away from me and asked me to spoon her. She said she wanted to talk to me about something. I held her in my arms and after a long pause, she redirected our discussion to the topic of gender and identity. I watched her eyes focus in on the paint chips of her wall. I listened as she spoke quietly about how she had recently started considering using they/them pronouns. That she had been thinking a lot about what it means to be a woman or a man in today’s society, and that sometimes she wakes up and feels more like a girl and on other days she wakes up and feels more like a boy. She told me she felt like she identified as something called “gender queer”.
As she explained all of this, a wave of nausea came over me. I realized I had similar experiences and had never put words to them before. And that even if I wanted to, I never really had the appropriate vocabulary to talk about things like identity or gender expression. That I had honestly sort of always felt more masculine throughout life but never let my mind wander towards the possibility that maybe that was because I simply wasn’t a woman. And that I had never told myself that was OKAY. I was scared. Fucking petrified.
I started thinking about the fact that I had always felt more comfortable in men’s clothes. I thought about all of the stereotypical “tom boy” things I did growing up, from preferring to play with toy guns rather than Barbies to playing football at recess instead of making flower crowns. I reflected on everything from wearing shorts instead of the school uniform skorts to keeping my long blonde hair in a tight and low ponytail so consistently that it was permanently bent by second grade. I realized that all of these seemingly-innocuous quirky kid things might have been me subconsciously seeking more masculine appearances, hobbies, etc. because I just was not comfortable being a girl. That I sought and found comfort in what society defines as “masculinity”.
So, in that dorm room, in that moment, I spoke the words out loud for the first time, to someone I loved and trusted. I asked if we could look up other “alternative” genders and their definitions online, in the hopes that I might find something with a definition that matched up with my experiences. I wanted to find at least a temporary label for myself; a way to identify myself to others as something outside of the gender-binary. I needed a starting point for reflecting honestly about my own gender, identity, experiences, and preferences. I was pushing myself to step into the discomfort of self-realization, Pushing myself to stop running away and start actually engaging with the idea that there might have been something legitimate behind that ping of discomfort I felt every time I was grouped into the “girls” team for gym class.
So, we opened up Google. And let me tell you there were a lot of genders and terms and definitions and hyphens and it was truly overwhelming. So, we started from the top. There was cis-gender. Gender non-conforming. Queer. Gender-queer. Non-binary. Gender-fluid. Agender. Bigender. Inter-gender. Pangender. The list goes on. (Note: the list never actually ends cuz identity really is a #spectrum.)
We read them out loud and I finally settled on gender non-conforming. I felt like the definition was a pretty close description to what I had experienced; “denoting or relating to a person whose behavior or appearance does not conform to prevailing cultural and social expectations about what is appropriate to their gender.” To me, this definition, at this time in my life, felt really empowering: I am what I am and I don’t need to fit into whatever box you/society is trying to fit me in. It left a lot of room for me to engage in reflection and self-discovery, which was extremely important for my personal growth. That was almost two years ago now and I really can’t believe it; that day feels like a lifetime ago. I feel like a completely different person today. Today, I feel so…strong.
I remember my girlfriend and I leaving their dorm room and going to dinner with our queer squad and texting our friends back home and kind of…coming out all over again. It was exhausting at times, and stressful, but also exciting. For the most part, we were met with total love and acceptance and our friends mirrored our excitement. They were proud of us for “coming out” and appreciated that we felt comfortable enough to share this realization with them. Overall, an incredibly positive experience.
But, I did have a lot of apprehension about talking to my family. With Thanksgiving break only days away I decided it was best to keep this new realization to myself until I could talk to my parents and sisters in person.
About a week later, I was sitting at the dinner table with my family and forced myself to just say it. I timidly announced that I had recently decided that I would prefer if people started calling me Lex instead of Lexie. That it’d mean a lot of they tried to use they/them pronouns when referring to me. That I had found a new way of identifying that made me feel more comfortable. That I didn’t identify as a woman but rather as some sort of hybrid thing. To put it simply — a person. A person who didn’t feel the need to wear dresses just because they have a vagina. A person who would choose a tux over a ball gown. A person who felt more badass in Nike’s than stilettos. That I had recently realized that sex and gender are not one in the same. They are not interchangeable terms. They are not mutually exclusive.
Sitting at the table, the first question that popped out of my oldest sister’s mouth was “So can I not call you my sister anymore?”
While, the first question that popped out of my mother’s mouth was “So…are you trans?”
That was when I realized that it was gonna be a long conversation, settled into my chair, and poured another glass of wine.
It was frustrating and there were lots of problematic comments and I cried a lot, but every conversation brought them closer to understanding. One moment I remember pretty vividly from this first conversation was when I was trying to explain the difference between sex, gender, and sexuality. My mom pulled out an index card and started taking notes. It was adorable. But I could see her frustration. She simply didn’t get it. As a middle-aged cis-gender heterosexual woman these words and phrases and ideas were all completely new and sort of overwhelming. And she really wanted to understand.
Coming from a hyper-liberal bubble at Middlebury College in Vermont, I had to remind myself that other people are not being constantly exposed to these ideas. These ideas have not yet been normalized in society. That this was probably the first time my mom had ever even heard phrases like “the gender binary” or “heteronormative”, or even been given the space to ask questions in a non-judgmental setting. That’s one thing I learned through all of this, and something I’m really thankful for, the importance of patience. I had to have patience, especially with my loved ones, if I really wanted to make progress towards mutual understanding and respect.
I ended up pulling out another index card and drawing a stick figure. I circled the head, the heart, and the groin. Next to the head I wrote “gender”. Next to the heart I wrote “sexuality”. Next to the groin I wrote “sex”. It was actually a pretty effective tactic for explaining how these aspects of our human experience are usually construed as one in the same but are in fact very separate for many individuals. In fact, soon after this conversation, my mom changed the medical forms for my dad’s patients. Before it just said “Sex M/F”. Now, there are two separate lines for sex and gender and two blank lines next to each, giving the patient the option and agency to fill in their information however they’d like. It was little things like this that really showed me that my mom was listening and doing her best to understand.
And all of that? That was just the beginning.