Nonbinary Femme Thoughts

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?)

Book Notes: Queering Sexual Violence

The new anthology Queering Sexual Violence (Riverdale Avenue Books, 2016), edited by Jennifer Patterson, is a must-read for social service providers, activists, policymakers, and anyone who studies child abuse and intimate partner violence. It includes personal essays, poems, artwork, and hybrid-genre pieces by Sinclair Sexsmith, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Sassafras Lowrey, the late Chloe Dzubilo, and 32 others.

The book fills a gap in the common understanding of abuse as something that men do to women and children, and as a social problem best solved through legislation and policing. This familiar picture excludes survivors for whom the carceral state does not routinely offer justice: people of color, the disabled and neurodiverse, and of course the many LGBTQ people who hesitate to out themselves to the police and the courts, fearing that their victimization will only be compounded. (Think, for instance, of the Orlando Pulse shooting victim whose homophobic father refused to claim his body.) QSV is first of all intersectional, with a diverse list of contributors who explore the ways that both victims and perpetrators may need liberation from the web of oppression that binds them together.

Some of my favorite pieces confronted the question, taboo in mainstream “Born This Way” LGBTQ discourse, of causal links between trauma and sexual orientation/gender identity. Lately I’m haunted by the question of whether I’d be genderqueer if I hadn’t been abused by my mother, particularly her controlling and shaming of my gender presentation and sexual maturation. Who is that mythical woman I might have become in a happy family? Am I allowing my mother to steal my womanhood along with my childhood? Is my lifelong wish for my uterus to wander away forever a self-harming trauma reaction?

Funny thing, though, I never ask myself (nor am I asked by anyone else) whether I’m legitimately heterosexual, or whether my disinterest in sex with women is a trigger that I should overcome. Both trauma and queerness are stigmatized, deemed to be in need of explanation, and so I’m always tempted to split or disclaim these parts of myself. As Pam Mack writes in her piece on “Mother-Daughter Sexual Abuse”:

While I believe that my personal development was harmed by the abuse [by her mother and grandmother], I can still claim as mine the preferences I have evolved, whatever combination of innate, abuse-conditioned and the product of growth and healing they may be. And I can let them change over time, if I want. Knowing this hopefully provides another way of moving towards a culture in which a wide range of choices are seen as valid, even ones that may have been shaped by abuse… It is freeing not to feel I have a responsibility to make myself as normal as possible. Aren’t we all shaped by pain? (pg.57)

Jennifer Patterson’s essay “These Bones” also showed me I wasn’t alone in this struggle:

The conscious and unconscious ways people pervert sexual and gender identity through the lens of abuse has been something I have experienced consistently since I began identifying as queer and a survivor. Those who wish to render me deviant search for sources of my “illness,” a root for my queerness. They quickly find it when they learn I am a survivor. Not only is my queerness “understood,” then, it is sometimes challenged for validity. As in: maybe I am not really queer, maybe I am just damaged. I reject all of the judgments placed on my body and my relationships. The need to validate my sexual identity did not exist when I was in “straight” relationships with cisgender men…

…To believe that people “become” queer by way of violent exposure also informs a false idea of safety within our queer communities. When people imagine that I “became” queer because of the violence I experienced, not only do they believe that violence made me queer, it’s as if they believe that queer people don’t experience or perpetuate violence. This is not even close to being true. (pg.105)

(I think she means “perpetrate” rather than “perpetuate”; the book could have benefited from more careful copyediting and proofreading.)

Amita Yalgi Swadhin’s essay “Queering Child Sexual Abuse” considers flipping the causation around:

…[Q]ueer people who are willing to be out about our sexual orientation are already seen as non-normative. In a way, we have less to lose by also coming out as survivors of child sexual abuse than straight people do, since survivorship is in and of itself a queer (non-normative) identity.

And therein lie our opportunities.

We now know that, regardless of sexual orientation, people who exhibited gender non-conforming (or genderqueer) behavior in childhood were at a much higher risk of sexual abuse to begin with… The risk of experiencing sexual abuse for gender-non-conforming boys is especially alarming, at rates two to six times higher than gender conforming boys… If more queer survivors tell our stories publicly, we may be able to bring this data to life and pressure prevention and intervention efforts to account for the higher risk of sexual abuse that genderqueer youth (many of whom are not straight) face. (pg.219)

Meanwhile, Jen LaBarbera’s essay “Welcome Effects: When Sexual Violence Turns Girls Queer” embraces her attraction to women as one of the good things that came out of her abuse by her brother. She challenges both LGBTQ and survivor communities to drop the respectability politics that de-legitimize her experience.

The anthology includes many other good pieces on the healing aspects of kink/BDSM, alternatives to the prison-industrial complex, the intersection of personal and societal trauma from racism and poverty, and how we can keep ourselves safe without handing over our perpetrators to an oppressive system. Follow @QSVAnthology on Twitter for related articles, giveaways, and news of upcoming readings.

July Links Roundup: Mommy T-Rex

In the years leading up to Shane’s adoption, I used to say, “I want to be a parent, not a mother.” I had hoped that non-reproductive parenting would free me from predetermined expectations about the balance of caregiving labor and the self-negating emotional enmeshment that I didn’t want to replicate from my own childhood. I wasn’t reckoning on the internalized sexism of social workers, but thankfully that period is over, and my husband and I can try to raise our son to appreciate all gender roles without feeling bound by any.

I resonated with this post from last year by feminist blogger Melissa McEwan (Shakesville), “Childfree 101: The ‘Women Are Designed to Love’ Narrative”, where she challenges the common argument that childfree women (but never men!) are denying themselves some supreme opportunity to give love. Even in a perfectly egalitarian socioeconomic system, emotional labor is a finite resource, and being female shouldn’t mean that people are entitled to infinite amounts from us:

In this definition of womanhood, our value is determined largely or exclusively by what we give—primarily to children and spouses. If leniency is granted so that what we give to our work may be included, it is not the actual work product we generate that has attached value, but what we give to our employers, to our coworkers, to our clients or patients.

When women are viewed as designed to love and care, childfree women are hardly women at all. Only if our work can define us as an ersatz mother, e.g. Mother Theresa, might we be given reprieve from the harshest of judgments.

Women are held to a standard in which we have value only if we demonstrate a constant outpouring of love and care for other people, which is harmful in a number of ways, not least of which is that, if it is true (as I believe) that empathy and concern for other people is part of the human condition, it is only one part, not the whole.

And sometimes the way we find to express empathy and concern for other people is incompatible with parenting. Because we only have so much. Because women are not, in fact, built to be naught but endless fonts of care.

I think a lot about gender because I’m raising a boy in a sexist world. Now that Shane is verbal enough to engage me in imaginative play, I’m fascinated and pleased by his non-attachment to the categories that adults so anxiously defend. “I’m Mommy T-Rex, you’re Baby T-Rex,” he’ll tell me, and then he’ll switch us. Eddie the Teddy might be another bear’s daddy one day, his mommy the next. Shane’s self-chosen interests are what society typically calls masculine: robots, dinosaurs, building blocks, big trucks, loud machines, and rolling in the dirt. At the same time, he loves to try on my costume jewelry and make his own in art class, and his stuffed toys are more likely to kiss each other than to fight.

In hopes of delaying his fall from genderfluid innocence, last year we removed the YouTube and PBS Kids apps from his iPad. (Yes, he has his own, and it’s better than mine. Don’t judge, read the link below.) On his own, he picks sweet, sometimes educational games that cut across stereotypical lines: DinoTrux and the Big Button Box of fart sounds and ambulance sirens, but also pony hair salon, dollhouse, and baby animal care. We highly recommend Toca Boca, Fox & Sheep, and Sago Mini. Toca Boca proclaims on their home page: “Gender Neutral: No pink or blue aisles. Digital toys for all kids.” My PlayHome is a series of apps where you put a multiracial cast of characters through everyday activities in a school, a suburban home, and a quaint shopping district, though Shane was disappointed that he couldn’t put the girls’ clothes on the boys and vice versa. In Toca Life, on the other hand, hairstyles and clothes can be swapped freely by male, female, and gender-ambiguous characters.

By contrast, many picture books, especially the classic ones that he receives as gifts, are retrograde in their gender roles. Books about trains, trucks, robots, and other “boy” subjects, which happen to be Shane’s main interests right now, have few if any female characters. I’ve resorted to switching the pronouns in Goodnight, Goodnight, Construction Site so that some trucks can be “she” or “they”. My headcanon on the modern Little Golden Book I’m a Monster Truck! is that the narrator is a butch lesbian who is dancing with her femme girlfriend. As other parenting bloggers have complained, the Lego mini-figures that come with the City (garbage trucks, ambulances, etc.) and Dino World sets are predominantly male. So the argument for meatspace versus virtual playthings is more complicated than you’d think.

Over at Medium, social media expert Alexandra Samuel makes the case “Why Kids’ Screen Time Is a Feminist Issue” in this blog post from May. One of her commenters also makes a good point that the attack on screen time is ableist: autistic and other easily overstimulated kids need an activity that’s a respite from intense face-to-face interaction. I’ve observed that Shane does seem to benefit from the cool-down time with his apps after a very active day at his Montessori school, which is a technology-free zone. Samuel writes:

When we fret about excess screen time as bad parenting, what we’re really talking about is bad mothering. After all, mothers still do more than three times as much routine child care as fathers do, and almost four times as much solo care, according to a 2011 study by Lyn Craig and Killian Mullan. When we worry that parents are shirking their duties by relying on an electronic babysitter, we’re really worrying that mothers are putting their own needs alongside, or even ahead of, their kids’ needs.

It’s a worry that rears its head any time someone comes up with a technology that makes mothers’ lives easier. As mothers, we’re supposed to embrace — or at least nobly suffer through — all the challenges that parenting throws at us. We’re supposed to accept having little people at our heels while we’re trying to buy the groceries, make dinner, or go to the bathroom. We’re supposed to accept the exhaustion that comes from working a full day at the office and a second shift at home before falling into bed for an inevitably interrupted sleep. We’re supposed to accept the isolation that comes from raising children in a world that regards a crying child as a crime against restaurant patrons or airplane travellers.

The mother who hands her child a smartphone is taking the easy way out of these challenges. But since so much of parenting consists of situations in which there is no easy way out, I’m deeply grateful when somebody offers me a cheat…

Just look at the prevailing attitude towards another innovation that gave mothers more autonomy: baby formula. We know that there are significant health benefits to breastfeeding, but that doesn’t begin to explain the horrified looks you attract when bottle-feeding in public. (The glares I got for bottle feeding my baby were good preparation for the glares I now get when I hand over my iPad.) As Cindy Sterns writes, “by deciding to formula feed, the woman exposes herself to the charge that she is a ‘poor mother’ who places her own needs, preferences or convenience over her baby’s welfare. By contrast, the ‘good mother’ is deemed to be one who prioritizes her child’s needs even (or perhaps especially) where this entails personal inconvenience or distress.”

When we shame women for adopting labor or sanity-saving innovations, we don’t limit ourselves to guilting them over the damage they’re doing to their kids: we also guilt them for what they’re doing to the earth itself. If disposable diapers emerged as one of the great symbols of environmental waste, that’s in keeping with the idea that women should be prepared to sacrifice themselves not only to the demands of motherhood, but of the greater good. The focus on “what you can do at home to save the earth,”Stacy Alaimo notes, “shifts the focus from patriarchal capitalism to the home and places the blame and responsibility, not on corporate polluters, scandalous lack of government controls, or waste-oriented capitalism but ultimately on homemakers, who had better use cloth diapers and keep those pots fully covered.”

Even before the advent of the contemporary environmental movement, saving women time took a backseat to saving men time, or to saving the earth. “Investment in labor-saving equipment for the farm took priority, partly because men made these decisions on their own,” writes Joy Parr, in her fascinating study of the differences between Canadian and American adoption of washing machines.

What’s really going on is an age-old problem: we don’t like innovations that make mothers’ lives easier.

This diaper-using, non-breastfeeding adoptive mother says, Amen.

In case you missed it, this May 31 New Yorker profile of the late Arnold Lobel made me feel even better about one of Shane’s favorite books. In “‘Frog and Toad’: An Amphibious Celebration of Same-Sex Love”, Colin Stokes discusses the enduring appeal of these gentle stories about the bond between two friends. Their situations are certainly not sexual or even romantic, since the youngest readers don’t usually care about such things, but instead center on the small crises and relationship glitches that make real drama for the pre-K set: wanting to play when your friend wants to be alone, or worrying that you look funny in your bathing suit. We don’t need sentimental conversations or tacked-on moral endings to know that Frog and Toad will stay together through it all.

[Lobel’s daughter] Adrianne suspects that there’s another dimension to the series’s sustained popularity. Frog and Toad are “of the same sex, and they love each other,” she told me.It was quite ahead of its time in that respect.” In 1974, four years after the first book in the series was published, Lobel came out to his family as gay. “I think ‘Frog and Toad’ really was the beginning of him coming out,” Adrianne told me…

…Lobel died in 1987, an early victim of the AIDS crisis. “He was only fifty-four,” Adrianne told me. “Think of all the stories we missed.”

When reading children’s books as children, we get to experience an author’s fictional world removed from the very real one he or she inhabits. But knowing the strains of sadness in Lobel’s life story gives his simple and elegant stories new poignancies. On the final page of “Alone,” Frog and Toad, having cleared up their misunderstanding, sit contently on the island looking into the distance, each with his arm around the other. Beneath the drawing, Lobel writes, “They were two close friends, sitting alone together.”