Coming out is peculiar when you don’t know what you are yet. I’ve been having a lot of conversations like this: “Um… I wanted to tell you… I’m decided I’m genderqueer now? But I’m not going to do anything about it? Like, I still use female pronouns and my husband likes boobs, so…” At which point my patient and understanding friends (because I’ve fired all of the other kind) smile and say that’s cool, and we go back to eating our fried rice.
The confusion is mainly in my own mind. I am certain of the reality of my masculine other self (he wrote a whole novel, after all) and my lifelong discomfort with assumptions that I should feel at home in women-only spaces. Beyond that, though, I struggle with the fear that this is all ridiculous unless I operationalize it somehow.
One problem is my limited imagination about what non-surgical genderqueerness looks like. I picture slender, androgynous, man-tailored women like these Beautiful Tomboys of the 1930s. I’d love to be them, but I don’t have that kind of body. I’d rather be a man who’s masculine enough to wear purple ruffles and eyeliner, like the late great musician Prince. That wasn’t in the cards for this lifetime either. When I dress femme, with a curvy female figure, I brace myself for being challenged that my queer identity isn’t real. But I don’t want to split the difference and wear asexual clothing, as I was pressured to do as a teenager because my mother didn’t think I was pretty enough to show my body. If I never see another plaid flannel shirt, it’ll be too soon.
And don’t get me started on the pronouns issue. I respect whatever anyone wants to be called, but for me it’s not worth the effort to insist on something different when people perceive me as a “she/her”. I’m not a “he”, and although I have a lot of personalities, “they” feels too neuter for me. Does that make me less queer? Am I a sell-out for passing?
There’s no getting away from sexism, however one identifies. Androgyny and masculine-of-center styles will be seen as cooler, and more represented in the media, because we’re still struggling with the second-wave feminist critique of femme fashion as inauthentic and oppressive. Magazines and TV prefer to show female-born bodies that are slim enough to get away with flat-chested male clothing, because women are better when they’re smaller, right? Don’t get me wrong, I have a serious crush on Emma from “Once Upon a Time”, but I’d like some gender-bending fashion role models in my size too.
The intersectional feminist website Wear Your Voice offers a fresh perspective. Ashleigh Shackelford writes about reclaiming femme beauty as a plus-size woman of color in “Why I’m Nonbinary But Don’t Use ‘They/Them'”:
Long before I came out as nonbinary, for most of my life, I struggled with gender and gender performance. I spent most of my childhood, adolescence and adulthood being violated for being a Black fat girl. I was often treated as if I was “one of the boys” or an “it” because I wasn’t feminine or girl-enough to be seen as attractive, worthy of being treating like a human, or seen as innocent/controllable. My blackness and fatness and proximity to girlhood was always othered in a way that most others did not experience.
As we see in the media and within our interpersonal spaces, femininity is significantly scripted through whiteness and thinness. I am none of those things. So my body being bigger, being Black and being read as cisgender/ or being assumed to be DFAB (designated “female” at birth) but not being seen as a girl/woman has forced me to grapple with gender in specific and violent ways. As I was growing up, I couldn’t fit into the girl clothing most of the time, so I was forced to shop in the boys’/men’s department to find attire. This alone is a queering of gender, incorporating a lens of fatness as a gender non-conforming quality, because girls’ bodies are supposed to be petite and small, be seen as controllable (fatness reads as “overpowering” to the gaze of masculinity), for consumption but only when you fit within certain beauty and humanity standards. My body was none of those things. And my only opportunity to find ways to present my gender in ways that would allow me to be seen as “more feminine” were denied to me because the clothes that would affirm my girlhood/womanhood were not available in my size…
…I don’t like using they/them pronouns because it feels so foreign to me. It’s really no shade to those who have found a home in they/them, but more so calling into question the terms “gender neutral” and “neutrality” in a world where nothing is neutral or objective, and often all defaults are based in masculinity and whiteness.
Shackelford’s piece reminds us that femme presentation doesn’t mean the same thing to all women. It’s forced on some of us and denied to others. Like Shackelford, I got all the downside of being perceived as female (body-policing, tone-policing, constant threat of harassment) without any validation that my gender performance was successful. When I put on lipstick and skirts, I thought I looked like Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie”: my body was too clunky, assertive, and large to be pretty. When I put on button-down shirts and corduroy pants, I felt childish and drab next to the other girls in high school. I was afraid I’d be mistaken for a lesbian and never get married. (Life’s little ironies.)
S.E. Smith, who blogs about gender and disability issues, expands on the topic of sexism and identity role models in the 2015 post “Beyond the Binary: Yes, Nonbinary Femmes Exist” . The piece takes aim at some of my negative self-talk about passing and femininity:
[I]t’s troubling that in general culture, only a very narrow range of people are treated and presented as nonbinary. If we’re to believe things like art projects that claim to be documenting nonbinary lives, nonbinary people aren’t fat, they don’t have breasts and hips. They present mostly masculine, perhaps with a slightly fey appearance. Perhaps some look vaguely like butchy women — but nonbinary femmes are nowhere to be seen, and when they try to assert themselves and speak out about their identities, they’re often treated very harshly.
In other words, they’re caught in the same antifemininity trap that women have to deal with, where feminine gender performance and expression is sneered at and deemed lesser. Which is incredibly misogynist — it’s effectively saying that women who are interested in makeup or who wear dresses or who like heels are somehow less worthy by nature of their femininity. This should trouble people who think this way and claim to be concerned about gender politics, but it doesn’t.
Nonbinary femmes are misgendered constantly, forcibly labeled as women even when people are corrected. Their preferred pronouns are ignored and people treat them as women in social and political settings. People attempt to suppress their work and personal expression, exclude them from trans spaces, and erase their very presence, which is incredibly isolating for nonbinary femmes, who are left struggling with their gender entirely on their own. If you don’t see any people who look like you talking about the things you’re trying to deal with, it’s really difficult to come to terms with them.
If you’re uneasy in an identity as a woman but everyone calls you a woman, you might have trouble thinking of yourself as nonbinary — and when you turn to resources for the trans community to explore gender identity, you might see that none of the bodies represented there are like yours. In a community that’s allegedly diverse and complex, you’re tossed aside and treated like garbage, or even a pretender. Nonbinary femmes, you see, are just special snowflakes who want to have their cake and eat it too, dressing up like women and enjoying ‘passing privilege’ but still claiming a marginalised identity.
Things are much more complicated than that, as nonbinary femmes know. It can be incredibly stressful to live, move, and act on the margins of a society that repeatedly tells you that you don’t exist, and repeatedly erases your identity.
I’m unusually lucky to live in the Five Colleges region, whose culture is on the cutting edge of gender diversity issues. For me, most of the erasure is self-inflicted and internalized. At queer and transgender community events, I’ve seen plus-sized femme people wearing flamboyantly sexy, tight, wonderful clothing that I would never have dared to wear when I was their age. They make me feel I’ve found a place without body-policing, which is almost like a place without sexism.
I like the word “bigender” even though my eyes keep reading it as “big gender”. Or maybe that’s why. I have BIG gender. Too much to pick only one. Ekundayo Afolayan talks about this in their entertaining article for The Establishment, “My Genderqueer Quest for the Perfect Detachable Penis”:
From childhood into my teens, I learned that I had to be “feminine”—meaning big-breasted, with a flat belly, straight hair, and light skin. I kept myself clean-shaven, and stayed out of the sun so my brown skin wouldn’t get darker. I feared being seen as “butch,” or even expressing my interest in girls. I tied myself down with misogyny, and my sexual freedom went with it.
Being Black made my feelings about femininity even more complex. Viewed as a fat Black woman, I was both hypersexualized and desexualized by my peers. I was also keenly aware that my recent ancestors were never granted the right to be seen as feminine, so avoiding femininity made me feel guilty. I felt like I was throwing away something precious.
When I turned 14, my hold on gender norms broke. I developed chronic hirsutism. That meant thick tufts of hair all over my chin, a full mustache and thick sideburns and hard-to-lose weight. Not Western society’s ideal of “ladylike.” I felt ashamed. It wasn’t until I was in my last year of high school that I started to accept who I was. I was never completely a woman—I felt like a man, too, sometimes. Accepting myself as multi-gendered meant that my relationship with femininity became simpler. Still, my complicated relationship with detachable dicks was only beginning…
…[W]ith the discovery of Tumblr and my move to college, I was able to name who I was: bigender. I felt free!
Still, something was missing. I struggled with dysphoria, the sense that my body is fundamentally “wrong.” I’ve been taught all my life that I have to be soft and hairless, “feminine” in all the obvious physical ways. Men are supposed to be tall, muscular, with penises, flat chests and full of machismo. I didn’t know how I could break free of those norms. How could I, a person with wide hips, big breasts and long, flowing hair, ever been seen as a man?
I tried to hide. I tried costuming myself in ultra-femme clothes, cat-like nail tips and rouge lipstick, but it made me feel like people saw me as a joke: a “man” with not only a pussy, but also long nails and meticulous eyeliner. Sometimes I layered my clothes to hide my curves, but I couldn’t perform enough to convince people I wasn’t a woman. Finally, I realized that I needed to stop costuming and performing for cis-het folks, seeking their validation, trying to conform to their rules. I decided only I could validate myself. I don’t have to be anything for anyone but myself.
Some days I feel like my breasts don’t “fit” me, and other days they’re the perfect accessory; maybe I want to wear a binder one day and a push-up bra the next. Now that I know who I am, that doesn’t feel like a contradiction. These are all parts of my self-definition, which comes from within. I’m more than a man, and I’m more than a woman: I’m a singular experience. Some days I want be penetrated, and other days I want to top with the perfect dick. Which is why I now know that I have to push forward and find the perfect dick for me.
It feels like an act of rebellion to even search for the perfect dick—to know that one day, I will earn it. I will hand-select every single part of that dick and treat it right. I don’t need to show that I have a penis in order to be validated as a man, but I want one, for myself, in order to feel whole.
Read the whole thing for tips on how to find your missing piece. I recommend Toys of Eros in P-Town. (Of course I’m such a size queen that my new buddy doesn’t fit in my jeans. Time to try wearing skirts again?)