I am honored to have been chosen as a contributor to Hoax #10: Embodiments. Hoax is a feminist zine that gathers a variety of voices on particular theme for each issue. Like the best zines, Hoax is brimming with candor, with truth and with the kind of personal specificities that make reading through it feel like a conversation more than anything else. The contributors of this issue interpret the theme—embodiment—through a wide range of lenses. There are discussions on transnational identities, gender identities, gender identities contextualized by transnational identities and different kinds of disabilities; there is poetry, there is a short story about a mermaid and sirens, and there is even a good recipe for vegan strawberry muffins. I’m posting my own contribution here, but with the caveat that mine may actually be the least interesting essay in the bunch. All of that is to say that you should definitely check out the zine.
The Whole, Not the Parts: Performing A Nonbinary Gender
I am a nonbinary genderqueer person. I identify as trans*. My gender is a work in progress, something that is continually evolving. I dislike thinking of myself in terms of masculinity and femininity; both concepts are too loaded, too limiting and too restrictive for me. I describe myself as nonbinary and genderqueer because I understand myself through my embodied lived experience, the breadth and reach of which cannot be so neatly mapped to the either/or nature of societally sanctioned binaristic gender categories.
The concept of embodiment is foundational to my genderqueer identity. For me, my experience of my gender and understanding of it is deeply wedded to my literal physical body. The popular rhetoric of “the mind is gender, the body is sex” doesn’t work for me. I distrust the underpinnings of mind-body dualism in that statement since that line of thought is so often used to disregard my gender as a ‘real biological thing’. If my mind and experiences are genderqueer, then the vehicle through which I have those experiences and have those thoughts itself must be genderqueer, too. This is reflected with my relationship to my body: sometimes I have a dick and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I revel in my breasts, and sometimes I hide them. The way I use my body is as flexible and fluid as my understanding of my gender, which I believe makes my physical body as genderqueer as everything else about me. I want my gender grounded in something tangible and literal; I want my gender to be something beyond just an abstraction.
Outside my chosen family and close friends, no one else sees my body the way I do. I am not physically androgynous: I am not one of those waifish elfin-faced creatures who make people wonder what I gender I was assigned when I was born like Tilda Swinton or B. Scott or Casey Legler. Androgyny is socially constructed such that those of us with unambiguous secondary sex characteristics (the presence/absence of breasts, the width of hips, the breadth of shoulders) cannot inhabit that word. Androgyny is not understood as a body that questions the binary but instead as one that is questioned because of the binary. The whole wide world out there sees B. Scott and wants to know how they were born, what’s underneath their clothes, and that’s what makes them androgynous. The whole wide world sees my body—42DD breasts, hips wide enough to have birthed a child—and presumes it knows what and who I am regardless of my decidedly androgynous internal reckoning of myself. When I leave my house, I get “she” and “ma’am”. But even if I got a “sir” or a “he” it still wouldn’t be accurate. I wouldn’t be passing as me—I am masculine but not a man. It’s alright to refer to hypothetical people as “they”, but a person standing right in front of you? In the (presumably) identifiable flesh? Then people feel compelled to categorize you, to place you in one of two boxes. So I get read as variants of woman because of the shape and quality of my physical body. The precise breed of woman I am read as varies depending on the day’s gender expression: butch woman, lesbian, hard femme woman, just plain femme woman.
This constant stream of misgendering wear on a soul. The disconnect between what I truly embody and what the world around me sees has become a persistent chip on my shoulder. I can trace some of my introversion and social anxiety right to it. One reason I avoid going to parties because I become so hyper-aware of how the party-goers are reading my body, especially the ones I don’t know. Did the host brief them on my preferred pronouns? Probably not. Is it even reasonable to think they would have done so? I don’t know. And dating. I am poly, and all of my partners date all the time. They are some real Casanovas. But me? I’ve been on a total of maybe four dates the entire time I’ve been poly, and that’s largely because I really don’t want to have to take time out of my life to meet someone new who may or may not have the decency to “get” my gender. I was on a date with a woman, and I was talking about preferred pronouns and my genderqueer identity when she interrupted me to say it sounded to her like I was just a butch feminist. Which…I am butch (sometimes) and I consider myself a feminist, but she’d missed the point by about a mile. Who wants to deal with that? So I avoid parties and dating, and really the people I end up with are those who know me first as a friend and who have respected and validated my gender identity long before things turn more than platonic.
These are illustrations of how difficult I find it to embody and communicate my genderqueerness to the outside world. These are also illustrations of how much I want to be able to do that. But the gender binary is so culturally entrenched that I have not yet found a way to do this. Even dominant narratives about trans* identities are binaristic—MTF, FTM, I was raised Y but I always knew I was X. My own gender is so fluid, so very much a living document that it is not captured by common modern American cultural gender narratives. How do you embody something that has no name?
The deceptively simple answer is that you embody it the same way men embody manhood and women embody womanhood—through manners of speech, body language, how much space you do or don’t take up, which spaces you find yourself in in the first place, and through choices in dress and grooming. Gender is performative, right? We are taught, from an excruciatingly young age, to gender the people around us. We are literally taught to look at one another’s bodies, take stock of them, and plunk them into one of two categories. People look at my body, see what the doctor who delivered me saw, and assign me as female, too. My gender is as performative as anyone else’s (and cis peoples’ gender is as performative of trans* peoples’ even if those cis people don’t see it as such). The problem is that with no name, no category, the message of my performance is so often lost on the audience.
My gender performance includes all of the standard visible and nonvisible tools. It’s about my foul mouth paired with my empathetic assurances that I’m still listening to you. It’s about the way I use my short, smallish body to carelessly take up more space than expected. And it’s also about how I get dressed in the morning. My wardrobe is typically a game of mix-and-match between traditionally masculine and traditionally feminine elements. Suspenders and pencil skirts. A carved-up men’s suit vest over a vintage dress. Button down shirt and trousers, but the trousers are bright pink, that sort of thing. I am all fauxhawked haircuts and bright red lipstick. I telegraph as queer, and I always have, largely due to what has been described to me as a “masculine presence in a feminine body” which is a combination we culturally ascribe to gay women. I feel validated, in part, that it’s so easy to read me as queer regarding my sexuality. I am visible in that sense, and living as a middle-class white person in Denver, CO means that’s not something likely to bring about physical violence. There’s a theoretical proximity of my sexual queerness to my gender queerness that makes me think that someone will eventually “get” me if they’re able to “get” that I’m pansexual. In reality, I think this is an example of the way we, as a society, increasingly conceive of sexuality as something that comes in many variations and flavors but that we conflate gender and sex and see both as fixed and categorical.
All of this is running through my head when I leave my protective bubble at home. I perform my gender quite consciously, trying to guess at what the strangers on how the street are going to perceive me. Usually I’m able to say fuck it and wear whatever feels authentic that day. But, sometimes when I’m getting dressed in the morning I’ll put on a dress. And I’ll love that dress, and I’ll look awesome in it, but I’ll sigh and pull it off again. I’ll pull on a collared shirt and a tie and skinny hipster pants instead. If I wear that dress, I find myself thinking I won’t read as queer at all. Both my gender and sexuality will be washed away. It took me some time, after I came out to my partners as genderqueer, before I started wearing skirts and dresses again.
That internal back-and-forth as made manifest in putting on and taking off that dress is a curious thing. I think about how my privileges play out in this: as a white and no longer poor FAAB nonbinary person, masculinizing my feminine form is less transgressive (and therefore less dangerous) than the same kind of act made by a MAAB trans* person of color. It’s a privilege to want my sexuality and gender understood and validated. It’s a privilege to be able to express even part of that without fear of getting the shit beat out of me. Sometimes I struggle with how to own my privilege and still feel my marginalization at the crux of my gender.
Gender can be both constricting and freeing at the same time; it has the potential to be both oppressive and revolutionary. The only way I’ve ever found to be comfortable in my own skin is by rejecting the gender binary. I see that as an inherently revolutionary act in itself. It’s all so clear to me what and who I am, but something vital always gets lost in transmission. To the cashier at the store I’m still just a muddle, a motley assortment of ‘male’ and ‘female’ that somehow do not make a whole. But it’s also true that it would mean so fucking much to me to be gendered correctly on the first try by a stranger. I think if a coworker referred to as a “they” instead of a “she” or if a cashier at the grocery store called me “mixter” instead of “miss” I would start ugly-sobbing right there. I would feel acknowledged. I would feel dignified. I would feel like I counted. I would, in a word, feel like my gender was real. My gender is real—of course it is, I live it. It’s me. But a thing can be real without it being recognized as such.