Growing up I was always perplexed by the world, but that was okay. I was a child, I wasn’t supposed to know everything. I’m still perplexed by much of the world, and that’s okay too. The world is a big place, and there is a lot to learn. But I digress.
I enjoyed learning more than anything. I was always on time to school. One of the things that confused me was other children not wanting to be in class.
I loved numbers and words, colors, sounds, science, and history. I didn’t care whether it was learning about shapes or art or science or ancient civilizations, I drank it all up. Figuring out things I didn’t know was something I thrived on. The scientific method itself fascinated me. I won first place in the school and county science fairs every year. I was the annoying kid who could find all the problems with your project and, in pointing them all out to you, truly believe that I was helping. I was baffled when the other kids expressed annoyance.
I also found other social norms puzzling. Why did my cousin say that it wasn’t okay for me to go shirtless on a sweltering East coast summer day when I was barely more than a toddler? Why did my mother agree with him? Why did I have to put on a shirt when he didn’t? Why did “being a girl” matter? Why did my mother – who taught my brother and I that gender didn’t matter – agree with him?
I truly did not think about my gender very often as a young child. It only came up when other people made a big deal out of it. And then, it felt gross in ways I never had words to describe.
Why did my friend in 7th grade turn his face into a wrinkled scowl and say, “why would a girl want to be tall?” when I was happy to be one of the tallest kids in my year? What did “being a girl” have to do with one’s preferences for one’s own height? It was the first time in a long time that I had even thought about my gender. And then he threw what he thought it was into my face to stop me from enjoying a simple fact of the nature of my existence.
It struck me for most of my years as a minor that gender was fake. Everyone seemed fundamentally the same to me, but everyone was also picking sides in some weird battle between boys and girls, as if the difference was existentially significant. It seemed to me that this just didn’t have to happen, that they were making it all up and making their own lives and each other’s harder. But, it was happening nonetheless. I was certain, if nothing else, that I was apart from all of it. As an adult, the bafflement has melted into empathetic grief. I have watched the battle of the sexes of childhood harden into systemic oppression. My sadness for the depths and reaches of the harms of sexism is something I don’t have words to express. And yet, it’s still something I am generally apart from except when other people make absurd assumptions about my gender and act according to their sexist social scripts.
When the great digital cultural migration of our lifetime happened and MySpace was abandoned for Facebook, I did not select a gender. It was not required, and for reasons I did not understand at that time I had a strong aversion to the question, so I left it blank. Later on Facebook participated in the tidal wave of binary gender washing over digital platforms. Facebook’s language changed from prompting users to speak about ourselves in third person in every post to a looser format, and they also began using pronouns to refer to users. Around that time, those of us who had not entered a gender got a pop up notice upon logging in to select male or female. No other options, no way to opt out. I refused to select one. Instead, I spent a few years going up to the address bar to retype the home page web address every time I logged on. This bypassed the screen, which no longer pops up for users like me. To this day certain plugins break because I have never entered a gender into Facebook.
Why did my friends sit me down in college to have an intervention and tell me that I needed to be more girly in order to attract a man? Why couldn’t I wear my keys on my belt loop with my big baggy hoodie and no makeup? Why didn’t they understand that gender was more complicated than just men and women? Why did they balk so very strongly when I tried to talk to them about that? I was right on the cusp of finally letting myself understand that I am not a binary person, but that conversation went so badly that it shoved me far deeper into the self-closet. (Yes, being closeted to yourself is a thing, and it’s often messy.)
I did finally emerge, after some years of additional college education, into a place in my own mind where I was capable of thinking critically about my gender. I stepped out of my internal closet directly into a giant question mark: Was I really “not a woman,” or did I just hate the way the world treats women? I would ask myself this for years, punctuated by long periods of stepping right back into that self-closet. Or maybe I just ignored it because to me gender was that irrelevant. Or maybe it just took so long because “both” didn’t occur to me as a possibility for an embarrassingly long time. I don’t really know, and frankly it was likely a combination of these and other factors as well.
Why did the management team at one of my first jobs, where I was a peon in a huge corporation, refuse to call me by my name? Why did they call me into a meeting with HR to insist both that I must use my legal name and that the company was not transphobic? How could they not see the ridiculousness in that? And why, when the name change became legal, did they keep using my false old name on official documentation no matter how many times I filed a request for my name to be changed to reflect my legal name?
I bought a chest binder, but I wasn’t trans, I told myself. I proudly told people about how I had circumnavigated Facebook’s gender inquiries, but I wasn’t trans. I bought myself my first packer (link is NSFW), but I wasn’t trans. I wasn’t. I wasn’t trans. I also wasn’t cis. I was and am something different, something apart from the system as it had always been described to me. Cis/trans is just another false binary, another social construct used for the ease of communication. There is nothing wrong with being either one of those things. It’s just not a model that is useful for describing me. I knew this on a fundamental level but I did not have the words to say it for years.
Eventually I moved to a new place filled with the kinds of laboratories and research facilities where I’m interested in working. This place is also filled with trans people and other people who are neither cis nor trans, just like me. They all told each other my pronouns were they/them behind my back. The lie spread like wildfire. I spent my first year there regularly correcting people in my trans, agender, and nonbinary circles: I do not use pronouns. That includes “they/them.” Why did some of them call me a TERF for speaking my truth about myself?
Why did one of the few cisgender people I dated in the new place after I moved insist that I could not be neither cis nor trans? Why did he insist I must be one or the other? Why did he insist I must be something I am not? Why was he more attached to his preconceived notions of a language he himself admits is flawed than he was to listening to what I, his partner, was saying about the truth of myself?
Why was I treated like a “TERF-y faker troll” by some of the local queer communities when I was honest about my gender and pronouns? Why were they so hung up on yet another false binary that they were more likely to consider me a TERF than honest, even though I was speaking purely about my own existence, something they themselves say should be honored and respected?
Why are false binaries so voraciously present here?
Why would I ever call myself something other than “trans” when honesty caused me so much frustration and pain? Heck, I can’t even bring myself to describe my true gender here in this post. I’m too afraid. So just call me “trans,” or “transgender” if formality is a must for you.