And then I abandoned the story/let it gestate for nine months, until I ran into gender trouble with another new therapist.
Gender is hard.
There’s this piece by Spanish artist Oihana Cordero, which stands in the middle of a gallery and consists of a stack of paper stabbed through the center by an old-looking sword.
In order to read the paper, you’re invited to rip the top sheet off of the stack — using the sharp edge of the sword to tear it, disrupting the hushed vibe with a noise that makes everyone else in the gallery turn around and look at you.
The paper presents a “Contrato de Género,” which explains, in a parody of legal language for contracts (which sounds better in Spanish than in my rough translation): “In the act of your birth, without the full possession of your faculties, and without any choice, all people take up and remain subject to complete the following contract” — listing terms such as the need to hold onto the fictitious identities of “man” and “woman,” and most especially to punish anyone who deviates from them.
Gender is old baggage, and new — a sword through mass-printed paper from Kinkos.
Gender is deadly.
The verbal microaggressions are the worst for me. My gender expression rarely strays beyond that which the world can read as female. So people I interact with in person react to me, often, as if I were a woman — sometimes a queer woman, but still, a woman. As much as that’s not accurate, it’s something I’m so accustomed to that I rarely notice it. Doesn’t mean it isn’t still killing me oh so softly.
But the collective nouns, on the other hand— the “ladies,” the “women,” the “females” —honestly, these feel like a punch in my gut almost every single time. The exceptions tend to be when the collective is specifically “women of color.” That’s an identity that works for me.
Gender is elusive.
I didn’t figure out my gender until I was 36. And when I did, so damn much suddenly made sense to me. Simultaneously, however, my gender stopped making sense to pretty much everybody else.
This is my gender:
The realization, the journey, had a lot of steps to it — but in the end, it was so very clear, so very easy to see, to embrace, and to share.
Except for the part where gender is a social identity — so it’s ultimately kind of meaningless to most of society if you make up a drawing that is your identity — no matter how perfectly it expresses your gender. It’s especially meaningless when you’re a “tiny” person who generally presents in a fairly femme-y way, so most of society doesn’t think twice about assigning you a gender.
Gender is fucked.
By 2017, when I’d figured out my gender, “nonbinary” had become a gender identity that had social meaning. It was even starting to be an option on forms. So even though it wasn’t my identity, it felt close enough. Definitely a better box to tick than “woman.”
But its presence on those forms, and in our shared vocabulary in this what-are-your-preferred-pronouns moment, too often offers a promise of understanding that is ultimately hollow. From medical providers to colleagues to friends to relatives, even when they do seem to recognize the language of gender, I realize, and am always shocked to realize, always pained to realize, that they don’t get it; and they don’t care enough to educate themselves.
The shock doesn’t get old. Even though I know that this is the First Law of Social Identity: folks who hold more privileged identities — particularly when they’re one rung below the top of that ladder — have little capacity to educate themselves. I know this from my own personal experience, to my great shame, regarding class — where I’ve mostly lived in upper-middle-class/professional spaces, so am hyperaware of the relatively rare and relatively minor discomforts of encounters with those with more money, more connections, and a fancier upbringing.
So I get it when ciswomen (because they’re the ones who usually punch me in the gut) neglect to take the time to understand my gender; to understand that it’s not safe to assume that anyone who lists both traditional binary pronouns and some form of nonbinary pronouns (such as “they” or “zie”) is “really” a woman, or “really” a man.
Gender is unsafe.
Gender, like all social identities, is a hierarchical tool that structures power in our society. And like all social identities, it is not static across time or space. (Lots of resources out there for y’all on the interwebs on that one.)
But because it isn’t real — because there is no “there” there — it is extremely uncomfortable to encounter people who violate the gender contract they signed at birth.
All the more so for people who are aware of their own gendered oppression — as many ciswomen are.
But when they seek to celebrate and include me within their lists of “women,” ciswomen find that they have caused harm not only to me, but also waded out into territory that feels unsafe, unfamiliar, embarrassing, and uncanny, to them.
How they respond says a lot about them.
Gender is confusing.
I’m writing this because I do realize that many people in my life don’t know or understand my gender identity.
I want you to know that it’s ok to ask, and that I — and I believe many other non-cis-folks — would much prefer that you ask than that you misgender me, or even worse, exclude me.
One of the most gender affirming moments of my life was when, minutes after my niece was born, my brother-in-law asked what I’d like her to call me — who I wanted to be in her life, and in the family. I came up with the term “Nauntie” — for not-Auntie.
Gender is painful.
I’m writing this now because I want to invite ciswomen — during this Women’s History Month — to interrogate their own investment in the category of “women.”
Every so often, an organization, a blog, a scholar, will include me on a list of work by women that they want to highlight. I don’t always say something, but more often than not, the response is to literally delete my name or my work from the list.
What do you gain by excluding me, by not honoring me, by not drawing attention to my work? I realize that these lists — like this Month — harken back to a time when even “nonbinary” wasn’t on our radar as a social identity. So, now that it is, I invite folks to consider what the purpose of the “women’s” stuff (lists, months, museums, prizes) is? Is “Women’s” a term on a possibly outdated map? Or is it actually part of the territory?
Since I’m not a ciswoman, I won’t venture to offer any suggestions here.
I will note that there was a moment, a few years before I discovered my gender identity, when a Facebook group for women of color that I belong to renamed itself as being for women and nonbinary people of color. Some folks left the group in anger, but more didn’t.
I hope that in writing this, people who desire to can begin to understand my gender.
I don’t presume to hope that this piece will help others on their gender journey — but if it does help in any way, as others have helped me, I’d be glad to know it.
And I am confident that it will not stop the periodic flooding of my twitter mentions with bittersweet tweets that reflect appreciation for my work along with pride in a gender that is not my own.
I’m ok with that. And for the record, if you’re the one who has misgendered me: please don’t delete me. If you can find a way to acknowledge the misgendering, that’s great; and if you can find a way to honor me without needing me to fit into the category of woman, that would be so very deeply appreciated.