Parenting While Genderqueer

purchase the entire extremely great issue here

purchase the entire extremely great issue here

This article first appeared in HOAX zine #7: Feminisms and Change.

Parenthood has fundamentally and radically changed the way I relate to my body and what my body means to me. The process of becoming a parent made me engage with my body on its terms for the first time in years. It made me think about what my body and what my biological sex means to me, and it led me to question my gender identity. I chose to get pregnant, I wanted to do it. I had a pregnancy free of medical issues and a birth that went well. My kid is awesome. I found pregnancy and I am finding parenthood to be a very affirming Now, at 271, I’ve finally reclaimed my body. It is more than mine again; it’s me. I’m it. We’re the same entity. It’s a respite now, and a comfort. It’s like it was in the good parts of my childhood. I’m glad for the reunion. I feel more whole now, and more connected to the world. The reunion was hard-earned, though, and came unexpected. I am more comfortable now in my body than I have been since the age of twelve because I got pregnant and had a kid.
When I was young, before I hit puberty, I ran wild. I climbed trees. I climbed onto the roofs of houses and jumped off, fearless. I wrestled with boys on my street and beat them because I was strong and wiry. My memory of my childhood is strange – mostly a handful of memories so vivid they feel like flashbacks, seemingly disconnected from each other. There is no clear narrative, but there is a physicality to them that still remains. I feel my childhood more than I remember it: sweat, strain, euphoric bursts of energy. The rush of wind squealing past my ears as I sprinted impossibly fast down the street. The harsh quiet sound of skin on asphalt when I fell off a bike. My childhood, both the best and the worst of it, was lived through my body. I was my body, then.
Puberty changed everything. Breasts and hips came. Suddenly I was chubby and round instead of whip-thin. I moved differently, couldn’t run the same way. And I was looked at. Wrestling with the boys on my street turned tentative and threatening in ways I didn’t fully understand. My parents started monitoring what I did, what I wore. I hadn’t realized until they started discouraging me from cutting my hair short and wearing boy’s clothes that my rowdy rugged tomboyishness from the year or two before had been merely tolerated. It was a profoundly confusing and troubling thing to me. My memories of adolescence are clearer than of childhood, but mostly because they are more cerebral, and they are more cerebral because puberty made my body a site of conflict, and confusion, and danger. There was a lot of not-so-great stuff going on at home, too. I didn’t have the resources or support to grapple with the newfound strangeness of my body, so I retreated from it. I pushed it aside. I made it not really me. I trained myself not to pay attention to what my body wanted. I stopped running wild and grew mouthy and sharp-tongued instead.
For years my body has been an inconvenience more than anything else. I kept thinking of it as this grossly inefficient mechanism. Like, really, I have to eat four times a day? It struck me as a design flaw. I avoided mirrors; all I saw when I looked in them were expectations I knew I wasn’t living up to. Sometimes when I saw a picture of myself I found the contours of my body and face surprising. In a very real sense I had forgotten what I looked like. I barely explored my sexuality. I kept everyone at arm’s length in high school out of fear of a life-derailing pregnancy (they were common where I grew up and I really, really, had to get out of there). But in college it wasn’t all that different. I had tried so hard not to pay attention to my physical wants and preferences that I have spent most of my adult life going through the motions in sex rather than actually enjoying it. I fell into sex and relationships without much thought about what I wanted from them. Mostly I just wanted to impress my partner by making them feel good.
Before I got pregnant, I’d never had much contact with pregnant people or babies. I had gotten to a place where I felt mentally and emotionally ready to be a parent, but I grossly underestimated the physical toll pregnancy takes on you. I spent my adult life working too hard, exhausting myself and depleting myself to the point where I would get one nasty cold after another. I sometimes went twelve hours working straight in grad school without even stopping to eat. I wasn’t denying myself, I was just so disconnected from my bodily needs that I didn’t actually realize I was hungry until I was done with just this one last set of analyses. Getting pregnant threw me for a loop because pregnancy has a physical urgency to it that demands that you listen to your body. The first trimester fatigue was brutal. I missed deadline after deadline. Somewhere around the third or fourth important deadline, the importance of the deadlines lost their sting. For the first time in my life, my body was in charge and I was along for the ride. Everything else had to wait. Pregnancy was absolutely fascinating to me. It was incredibly anxiety producing too, what with the specter of all the thing that could possibly go wrong, but mostly I sat on my couch just feeling it. Feeling tired for no reason, or hungry again, or having to pee but not wanting to haul myself upright. I would count the fetus kicking when they got big enough to feel.

Pregnancy was all-consuming, and it felt like a very private thing: not even my partner knew what it felt like because it wasn’t his body doing all this work. It was mine. It was me.
But the thing about female bodies is they’re never private. There were constant well-meaning but intrusive questions: morning sickness? Weight gain? Can I touch your belly? I hated that everyone loved that I was pregnant. I hated how visible it made me, and I hate the visibility because it was so gendered. The constant chatter of mommyhood viscerally rubbed me the wrong way, and it got worse when we found out I was carrying a female fetus. The moment someone referred to my unborn child as a princess I regretted having told anyone I was even pregnant. Like puberty, it was a moment in life where all I anyone saw of me was the changes my body went through, changes that signaled gendered expectations and roles. It was a strange time, because I was enthralled with myself and the pregnancy but at the same time I was deeply unsettled by how people reacted to my body. The thing is, my old strategy of just pretending my body didn’t exist wasn’t an option. Pregnancy is too demanding. It’s not the sort of thing you can ignore. And beyond that, this time around I really wanted to take of my body. I wanted to indulge it and revel in it and treat it well.
The link between the way my body was objectified and the way that objectification gendered it is incredibly obvious in hindsight, but when you’ve spent your entire adult life ignoring something it takes awhile to learn to pay attention to it. It is clear to me now that the reason it felt profoundly violating when people touched me and cooed and talked about mothers and daughters and the special connections they have was because society inevitably reads a pregnant body as a woman’s body. And the reason that is violating to me is because I am not a woman. When you are that viscerally uncomfortable with the assumptions society makes about you, you have two choices: find a way to convince yourself nothing is going on or tell society to go fuck itself. Being misgendered was ubiquitous. It was so entrenched and so unrelenting that I did not for years realize that it was even happening. In some dark little corner of my mind I convinced myself that if I didn’t have a notable body to gender that I wouldn’t be gendered as a person, so if I ignored my body maybe everyone else would too and I could just be me. But being pregnant made my body inherently important to me. My relationship to my body was no longer something I was willing to sacrifice.
The change wasn’t that I became genderqueer. The change was that the immediacy of my connection to my body made it possible for me to reconsider what gender meant to me. It was important for me to find a way to be visibly pregnant and feel masculine at the same time. These days, now that my kid is out and about in the world, it’s sometimes important for me to be visibly masculine and feel like a particularly tender and feminine parent at the same time. Realizing that my body doesn’t determine my gender has liberated me to like my body. Now that one doesn’t determine the other they’re no longer at war. I am just me.
What’s especially peculiar about all this is that pregnancy does indeed change your body. I have stretch marks now. I went up a whole cup size, and my hips broadened. My waist shrank. I am curvier, more conventionally womanly in appearance than I ever was before. But the comfort in my own skin is paradoxically unshakeable now.


1I’m turning 31 this week, FYI, but on re-reading this every word still rings true.

No More Room At the Inn: How I Became a Kindle Convert

my kindle paperwhite, purchased November 2012

my kindle paperwhite, purchased November 2012

My family and I moved from Ypsilanti, Michigan to Denver, Colorado in the summer of 2012. It was a hell of a move, and we had to ditch a ton of stuff, but the worst of it, by far, was the books. We had to get rid of so many books. I had just finished graduate school, and part of the ritual of graduate school is the accumulation of books. Around then I had also started writing fiction seriously, and part of the ritual of writing seriously is reading seriously, and for me that also required the accumulation of books. At the time we were set to move, we had a basement lined with bookshelves. We had to get rid of easily 80% of those books.

Jon and I were allowed two boxes of books apiece to take with us. My other partner, Sam, only had a single box of books to start with. Unlike me and Jon, she is a Library Person. You know them: voracious readers, inconstant, non-possessive sorts. Jon and I are Book Owners, which meant we had tough decisions to make. I came up with a list of criteria books had to pass to make it to the Rocky Mountains. Had I read it? Was I going to actually read it if I hadn’t (be honest)? If I had read it, would I reread it? Did it have sentimental value? If it was a holdover from grad school, would it be useful in my new job? If the book didn’t fall into any of those buckets, I gave it into the greedy, waiting hands of my ravenous grad school friends. I whittled my books down to two cardboard boxes, and the rest scattered to the wind. Getting rid of the books was actually harder on my partner, Jon, than it was on me. Jon fretted and wept, but eventually he got his down to the requisite two boxes, too, and off we went to Denver.

We landed in a smaller house in Colorado than we had in Michigan. Perfectly reasonably sized, but with less room to hide things away. When we moved into the new house, Sam instituted a new rule: the amount of books must stabilize. If a new book comes in, an old book must leave. We just didn’t have the room to start mounting up piles of random books again, she said. And she was right. We only had two book shelves to work with in our new house, and living with a toddler meant that functionally speaking they weren’t even complete bookshelves. The bottom shelves were off-limits–anything in them was getting plucked off by our kid and hidden around the house or covered in peanut butter. So, really, we only had one and a half book shelves to work with.

one of our two packed-to-the-brim bookshelves

one of our two packed-to-the-brim bookshelves

I had long been a physical book holdout up until then, but I cracked like an eggshell when Sam put her foot down. I saved up, and within months, I bought a Kindle. I had to feed my habit, man! It was a perfect compromise–an e-reader meant I could buy all the books I wanted without running into physical space constraints. I could have my cake and eat it, too!

I thought the switch from a physical book to an ebook would be a transition, but it wasn’t. I thought I would miss the feel of turning pages, but I didn’t. I found I liked the size and feel of the Kindle, and I liked that I could read it in bed without the light on. I liked that if I finished a book on the bus I could immediately start reading a new one. I liked that I could still highlight and annotate my books1. It surprised me how little switching back and forth between formats changed my reading habits and style.

We still have Sam’s rule in the house these days. She’s appended caveats to it, because I can’t help myself, and I sneak in books anyway. There are little piles of contraband books stacked in the corners of my bedroom because they don’t fit on our bookshelves. New physical books are only allowed in the house if:

  • another book leaves subsequently
  • if I am the only one interested in the book, the new book is unavailable in ebook format OR the book is likely to be read by Sam or Jon2
  • Buying the book supports diversity in literature (the book either features diverse characters, was written by a diverse author, or both)

Honestly, if Sam knew how many books are not coming into our house because I bought the ebook instead, she’d throw a party. Or she’d get mad because she thought I was spending way less money on books. It’s hard to tell. In any case, the kindle has been a major space saver.

~

1I have always been one to annotate/defile physical copies of books.

2Neither of them have jumped on the ebook train like I have. They’ll do it if they have to, but they don’t like to. I got away with buying Shadowshaper in hardcopy because Sam is interested in reading it AND it features diverse characters/was written by an author of color. So far I haven’t gotten rid of anything to make space for it. Don’t tell Sam.


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#transdayofvisibility

authorpicbw

this is me, being hella genderqueer because I know literally no other way to be

I identify as genderqueer. I identify as non-binary. My pronouns are they/them/their. I am transgender.

For me, being trans* means:

  • existing on a sliding scale of gender
  • having fought through years of social conditioning and outright oppression to figure out who I am
  • finally being comfortable in my own mind and body
  • being closeted at work for fear that I will be fired (there are no protections for trans* people where I am, and I am my family’s breadwinner)
  • speaking up about trans* issues at work anyway (it is a glass closet)
  • having my right to parent my child called into question
  • building a community of other trans* and gender-variant people who fucking get it
  • valuing the cisgender allies I have in my life who, by some miracle also fucking get it

Writers’ personal experience seeps into what they write, sometimes on purpose and sometimes inadvertently. I am a trans* writer–I am also a white writer, and a writer with a complicated class history and a queer writer and a writer who struggles with mental and physical disabilities. All of these things shape the form and the content of my writing. My interlinked identities inform the kinds of characters I create, the worlds they live in and the words they speak.

I am proud to be a trans* writer. I hope to breathe life into trans* characters who are real, who speak to other trans* people, who contribute to a body of literature that is growing and blossoming and making a whole community of people who have always been here, but who have always been pushed to the margins finally visible. We are here. We have always been here. We will always be here.

Hoax #10: Embodiments

Hoax10_Embodiments

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.

My Mercurial Brain

guess which is the good side and which is the bad

(not actually my brain)

My brain is mercurial. It marvels and terrifies me in turn: sometimes it works so gloriously well, and sometimes it turns on itself with such viciousness. The same brain that writes all these novels and solves all these problems and is so taken with the world around me also saddles me with anxiety and depression and crippling migraines. I have a love/hate relationship with my brain. It is fickle and tricky.

Everything about my brain—the brilliance and the pitfalls—is inherited. I come from a long line of very smart, very tortured people on both sides of my family. Big thinkers who succumbed to alcoholism thanks to recurrent depressive episodes. Curious people trapped by bipolar disorder. Creative people who stumbled under the weight of chronic headaches. All of my immediate family members—my mother, father and sister—have or had serious mental health issues just like me. My mother and sister also get migraines. The brains in my family are for all of us a curse and a blessing. Jon, too, has his own mercurial brain. He’s brilliant and funny and insightful, but he is constantly grappling with anxiety. His anxiety, like mine, seems to stem in part from genetic influence.

I think a lot about my mercurial brain and his these days as I watch my kid develop. I get a migraine and I wonder whether twenty years from now she’ll be lying in the dark whimpering in pain herself. I get an anxiety attack or spend months surviving a fresh bout of depression, and I wonder if the same thing lies in store for her.

Recently, Jon began dating a woman who suffers truly vicious migraines—ones worse than mine by a wide margin. She told him she didn’t want kids and one reason was she didn’t want to curse them with her migraines. And I understood. When I was pregnant, I thought a lot about this, about how there was little possibility of my kid skating through life with a brain that always happened to work the right way, one which was always a friend and never a foe. Did I want to subject her to this?

Internalized ableism is sneaky like that. No one wants their kid to suffer more than they have to. No one wants their kid to suffer in the ways they themselves have suffered. Noble goals, both. I still worry for her, and I still wonder whether I was right to saddle her with my kind of mercurial brain, and at the same time I marvel at just how much ableist Kool-aid I’ve drunk in my life. The truth is that no matter what the migraines would be debilitating and the mental health issues would suck when they are at their worst. But they are made so much worse by living in an ableist society.

If everyone had free access to quality health care (mental and physical) without stigma and shame attached, if space and care were given to those suffering without judgment—if, put plainly, the world wasn’t ableist—then the disabilities I live with would be infinitely more tolerable. When we blame the brains and bodies of those who suffer instead of the society that piles on the suffering, when we say that maybe those facing life as people with disabilities shouldn’t be born, that’s a hair’s breadth away from eugenics.

This is not to say that I think Jon’s lady friend is in any way wrong in her personal decision. And, honestly, given that society is so deeply ableist I still worry. But it is to say that people with disabilities will always exist. And it is to say that I had Zadie, that she exists with her ticking-time-bomb brain, and that while I worry I don’t think I have cursed her.

I can teach her all the things I learned the hard was as a person with disabilities. I can teach her the strength to survive. I can teach her how to have spine enough to advocate for herself. I can teach her to be kind enough to herself to make space to cope. I can bring her up in a household where these things are not shameful, and hopefully that foundation will be something she carries with her. I can teach her to make peace with a mercurial brain.

On Not “Leaning In”

leanin

I confess I did not come to Sheryl Sandberg’s LEAN IN with the best intentions. I did not come to it in good faith. I had, in fact, been actively avoiding it since it came out a little over a year ago. When my best friend invited me (remotely) to participate in her “lean in” group, I declined. Because of all this, I don’t think it’s really fair for me to review it per se. So, this isn’t really a book review. This is more a manifesto in response to Sandberg’s manifesto.

I read LEAN IN as part of my intentional efforts to live the anti-oppressive beliefs I espouse. I am white, and I try to name and own that privilege as part of making spaces safe and comfortable for the people of color I interact with. And so it happened that in a rare Denver tornado warning I found myself in the basement of my building with a friend and colleague. She is black, and we were meeting specifically about anti-racist work we were doing in-house when the sirens blared. In the basement, we found ourselves cornered by a pair of white women co-workers. Conversation turned to LEAN IN, which the three of them had agreed to read together. The other two women were farther along in the book than my friend. They started chattering about it—about “tiara syndrome” and about “how women really are holding themselves back”—and I watched my friend’s face become a carefully blank slate. I know her well enough to know what signs to watch for when the unbearable whiteness of our work environment begins to really eat at her.

“I’ll read the book,” I said. The words just slipped out of my mouth. My friend cut me a sly look and smirked at the other two.

“Oh, you will?” asked one of the other two.

“Sure. When are y’all trying to have it read by?”

“June 1st,” said the other.

“No problem.” And it wasn’t. As far as I know, I’m the only one of the four of us to have actually finished it.

The security personnel waved us back upstairs. My friend and I hung back and let the other two women disappear into the crowd. We mounted the nine flights of stairs together. “I don’t really want to read that book,” she said. “And I don’t want to read it with them.”

“Yeah, how’d that happen?”

“I just got roped into it. At least if you’re there I won’t be the only one calling bullshit on it.”

Which is why I read it: to call bullshit on it. And that’s what this not-review-sort-of-manifesto-thing is.

***
1. Nothing Ever Trickles Down
Taking career advice from Sheryl Sandberg is about as useful and relevant to me as taking lifestyle advice from Gwyneth Paltrow. LEAN IN is GOOP for career ladies. Throughout, Sandberg admits that her book really is targeted at a specific group of highly ambitious and well-positioned women. She takes a strange position that by helping them specifically—those women who are, quite frankly, the most privileged sector of women—she will somehow spur a movement that helps all of womankind.

This is the same type of trickle-down activism that turned me away from the Occupy movement and marriage equality campaigns. I am not interested in political activism that leaves behind the worst-off. Focusing on the privileged members of a marginalized class has been historically used to divide and conquer, to bait and switch, and to give marginalized people just enough that the most well-connected and wealthy of them stop complaining. The complaints of the most marginalized members of that group are then easily discounted.

The women Sheryl Sandberg is writing for are women like her: the kind that can mobilize a multitude of privileges to get their foot in the door, period. These are women who are probably white, since having a black-sounding name on your resume is likely to keep you from getting hired in the first place. These are women who likely have no physical or mental disabilities, since they’ve typically excelled in school. These are women who are probably straight and partnered, since Sandberg more than once talks about how important it is for her readers’ husbands to lean in to the home and hearth as they themselves lean in to their careers. And they are probably cisgender since not once in 288 pages does Sandberg even acknowledge that trans* folks exist. More on that later, though.

My point here is that I’ve come to see movements that focus on the better-off segments of a fucked group as a waste of time. And this has been, historically speaking, the great weakness of white feminist work—it is another way whiteness supercedes everything else. It is white women (and middle class women, and able-bodied women, and cisgender women) telling everyone else to be patient, that once they’re in power things will be better. And that has never worked. The homeless, the forgotten, the women trapped in spirals of violence and poverty cannot afford to be patient. In the words of the black poet, Pat Parker:

SISTER!, your foot’s smaller
but it’s still on my neck.

There is an ethical breach there. How can Sandberg not see that?

2. Copying the moves of those in power keeps them in power
Largely Sandberg’s tactics consist of telling women (white, able-bodied, wealthy, cis women) to behave more like their male colleagues. Take up more space. Be more confident. Assert yourself. Negotiate harder.

She discusses why this is difficult, drawing on social psychological literature about power and social penalties women face when they do these things.* Her arguments position other women as the key to change here: if women would stop buying into these biases, if women would band together and cut each other breaks, then real change could happen. And maybe she’s a little right, but I think she’s mostly wrong here, too.

True change is not a simple shift in composition. It’s not a matter of more women in power at any cost and executing that power in any way. True change is a matter of fundamentally altering what we socially construct as power, as valuable, as worthy. What she’s preaching here isn’t change. It’s assimilation.

3. Anti-oppression work is intersectional or it is bullshit
That’s the heart of my objection to LEAN IN. Undergirding both Sandberg’s trickle-down strategies and her emphasis on assimilationist tactics is the idea that there exists a universal experience of womanhood. But the universal experience of womanhood is a myth.

Sandberg is pushing women to assimilate to a white masculinity. Women, generally, face social penalties when co-opting hegemonic masculinity, but women of color especially are at a disadvantage here. The social penalties faced by women of color are, across the board, far steeper than those faced by white women. And these tactics are not accessible to all women—embodying traditional masculinity is an especially fraught idea for trans women.

Adding to that is the fact that the women Sandberg is leaving behind with her book are the very ones who, due to structural and systemic oppression, are less likely to be employed at all much less shooting for the C suite. There was no way to translate Sandberg’s “sort of feminist manifesto” to the lives of single mothers, struggling women of color, trans women facing down daily violence, etc.

4. I exist; I resist
I can’t lean in. Truly, I can’t. At work, I am partially out. Thanks to our intersectional existence, there are many different axis along which a person can be out. It took me two years at my place of employment to out myself as having grown up poor, and that was still a pretty safe self-outing. I’m white, and poor white people are seen differently than poor black people. I’m highly educated—a person with a doctorate who grew up poor has “made good.” I’m upward bound. My class background is now little more of a footnote to my coworkers. Flavor text.

To a few at work I’ve outed myself as someone with anxiety and depression. This has happened mostly in the context of work I’ve done supporting students with disabilities, so there were reasons to disclose this, but still there have been raised eyebrows.

But I’m not out as queer. Or poly. Or, most importantly and most well-guarded, as trans*. For my sexuality and family structure, I’m in the glassest of glass closets. I don’t name it, but I don’t hide it, either. A few people know—when asked directly I give a direct answer. But most people at work don’t know. Still, it’s risky: I live in one of the 29 states where you can be fired for being queer.

But my gender. Oh, my hard-won prickly gender. I know I read as butch. And, oddly, sometimes at work someone will refer to me as ‘he’ with a bewildered look on their face as they stand staring at me in a dress. There is, I think, some way I’m telegraphing my transness. But not on purpose. I’ve resigned myself to getting continually, habitually misgendered at work. There is work me—a woman—and there is real me. Comfortable non-binary me. Protections for trans* people are thin on the ground. I would say that my place of employment is fairly queer-friendly, but being LGB friendly in no way means that the T is acceptable. I work in education. I work in central office administration, not directly with children, but the stigma and fear surrounding transgender people is still strong.

I can’t lean in. I can’t risk hustling and making enemies and quitting if it looks like I’m going nowhere. I’m the breadwinner of my family. And I’m on thin ice—queer, trans*, crazy. I have strikes against me. I’m an upwardly mobile, highly educated, conventionally intelligent and successful white person. And Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. I’m far more privileged than most people, and Sandberg’s book is not relevant to me. It begs the question who stands to gain from her book. How can she foment revolution when she’s only speaking to a handful of people?

*I am, actually, deeply familiar with this literature. I spent a good amount of my grad school career steeped in these theories and did some research on them myself. To her credit, she gets them mostly right, but the limitations of that work and those theories are ultimately what drove me personally from the academy.

Dear Medical Establishment, Please Stop Fat-Shaming My Toddler

this is my baby giant next to her totally normal sized grandmother

this is my baby giant next to her totally normal sized grandmother

There is an ongoing discussion in my household: is my kid a giant baby or a baby giant?

Zadie was born three weeks early and was on the small side at the start of her life, but she grew like a weed. Her growth curve is abnormal, exponential. A pediatrician once described her growth rate as “explosive.”

She started small, but by one she’d crept up into the 90th percentile for her age group’s height, weight and head circumference. By two, she was already three feet tall and over fifty pounds. She turned three recently, and at her annual well-baby check-up we learned that she’d shot up another six inches and gained another ten pounds. She’s in the 100th percentile for everything. I am a statistician by trade and training (when I’m not, you know, writing about elves and whatever), and she is literally off the charts—like, several standard deviations above normal. As in HOLY SHIT MONSTER BABY big. Just a really, really big kid, this one. It makes sense—her dad is a big bear of a man, and my sister is a broad-shouldered wide-hipped tall drink of water.

She runs all the time. She plays constantly. It is hard for me to keep up with her, but I try, and when I run out of energy I let her push me (5 feet tall, 160 pounds) around in a wheelie chair that desperately needs to be oiled. I have seen my toddler shove our couch across the room, and it was not on casters. She is a big, meaty linebacker of a three year old, and she’s tall enough to pull dirty dishes out of the sink and drop them on the floor if left unattended for a split second.

But her pediatrician wants to refer us to a nutritionist. Even though I cook vegan dinners twice a week and she eats the leftovers for days after, even though she loves vegetables and fresh fruits and is (mercifully) the least picky eater I’ve ever seen, he thinks she should see a nutritionist. Even though we rarely ever give her sugar because HOLY SHIT WE ALREADY CANNOT KEEP UP WITH HER she should see a nutritionist. Because, you know, she’s kind of…chubby.

The thing is my kid is a toddler beefcake with a sleek layer of baby blubber. She’s physically in great shape. The doctors are just concerned you know because of obesity but the thing is that there’s a lot of obese people who are perfectly healthy. My beefcake toddler with the insane energy who runs for literal hours every day? She will probably be one of those perfectly healthy obese people. And her doctors will probably tell her year after year that she should just lose some weight. Not because it’s actually detrimental to her but because, you know, being fat is bad.

My kid was assigned female at birth. Her gender is an open question , but I know firsthand that growing up FAAB in this society leaves you scarred with body issues even if you stop identifying as a woman. And I refuse to tell her she’s not good enough, that her body isn’t good enough, that she needs to be smaller and smaller and smaller still just because. Unless there is a direct medical reason to lose weight I am not allowing anyone to tell her to do it. What’s the nutritionist going to say? To keep feeding her kale?

I don’t want her to hate herself growing up. I want her to revel in her body. It’s going to hard for her to be “the big girl”, and she’s going to be that kid that dwarfs all the other kids in her class at school. Her pediatrician thinks she looks great, just great. There’s no medical reason to suggest that her weight is a problem now or that it will be a problem except for social bias. So, let’s just check that one at the door.

Transistor Radio #2: The Myth of the “Correct Gender”

you don't need to know your gender to know you love cherry tomatoes

you don’t need to know your gender to know you love cherry tomatoes

Last month, my kid turned three years old. There was a cake, and a brand new pop up tent to play with, and a couple of weeks later there was an annual check up with the pediatrician. I didn’t go, but I got the full debrief from her mom and dad who took her. Zadie’s great! Healthy as a horse*! Hitting all those milestones! Well, except for this one thing.

“There was a question on the survey they give you,” said Jon. “It was something like ‘how often does your child correctly identify his/her gender?’ The options were ‘always’, ‘sometimes’ and ‘not yet.’ I put ‘not yet’ for Zadie.”

And I went on a tirade. Bless his heart, he listened. He always does.

As a trans person, this question ruffles the shit out of my feathers because it presumes that someone other than the child themself decides what is correct. When I was Zadie’s age I could correctly identify the gender that had been assigned to me, but to call that my correct gender would have been presumptuous at best (given how I turned out) and full-on erasing at worst. Some of us know what gender we are by the time we’re three. Sometimes that matches what everyone’s expecting of us (cisgender kid) and sometimes that doesn’t (transgender kid). For a lot of us, though, gender is a slippery thing. It took me over twenty years to correctly identify my gender—if by correctly we mean identify gender in a way that makes sense and is comfortable for me. To put it another way, it took me over twenty years to reject what I was told, over and over again, is my correct gender. The constant stream of “You’re a girl, you’re a girl, you’re a girl” the whole time I was growing up confused the shit out of me.

As a trans person, this question is bullshit because it conflates sex and gender, which are separate constructs for a reason. Sex describes biological aspects of a person**; gender is an identity that people express through presentation and enactment. Gender is as psychological and sociological as it is biological, and an important part of that means that it is learned, and a thing which is learned requires time to learn it. By the time kids are three certainly they have received a shocking amount of gender-based and gender-focused socialization. But they don’t yet have the cognitive development needed to interrogate and articulate all of this. Gender is brewing at age three, but it is not done yet. For most people, how a person identifies gender-wise at three is consistent at age thirty, but the whys and hows and meanings are different. And some of us change! Some of us are different at thirty than we were at three.

As a nonbinary genderqueer trans person, this question gets under my skin because it presents the gender binary as fixed, immutable and true. Can I correctly identify my gender? Maybe—it depends on if the person asking accepts the categories I put forth. Is there a write-in category? Why does my kid have to choose between girl and boy? What if she’s somewhere in the middle? The phrasing and intent of this question reifies the gender binary, and in the doing, treats me as something that cannot exist.

And as a parent, this question rankles me because it is insensitive. My kid has a trans parent, and (not so shocking) I have trans friends. My kid interacts with a wonderfully gender-diverse group of people. And she’s at the age where she is learning to read and name social categories. That’s really what this question is getting at—whether or not she understands and can place herself in relevant social categories. But she doesn’t have the same exposure or environment that other kids her age do. She sees a lot of femme women and butch women, big burly dudes and fey elfin men. She sees others, like me, who are in a third category. Watching her interact with the world, it’s become apparent that she maps other people onto her family, categorizing strangers as Daddy-like (typically cis men), Mama-like (high femme people of any gender) and Baba-like (usually short-ish glasses-wearing people who are not so easily gendered). I have heard her call people “girls”, “boys” and “babas”. So she knows. She gets gender. She just gets more of it than most people.

And she is exploring her own gender organically. Over the course of the same week, when I’ve asked her if she’s a girl or a boy in the name of SCIENCE, she’s given the following answers:

“I’m a boy!”

“I’m a boy. I’m a girl. Baba!”

“Girl.”

She’s all over the map, and that’s ok. We let her pick out her own clothes, and she tends to gravitate towards t shirts with dinosaurs and pants. She likes her hair kept short because it’s thick and hot and it tangles and gets in her eyes. She violently resists whenever we’ve tried to do anything at all with her hair except let it just lie there. She is almost always assumed to be a boy outside our house. AND she’s curious about her mama’s make up and will paint her cheeks purple with eye shadow. She loves to dance. She wants to cook and plays in her toy kitchen all the time. She loves trucks and baby dolls. She’s just who she is right now, and there’s no pressure on her to even be a ‘she’ for any longer than she wants to be. Honestly, she seems not to care much about gender. She loves Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra, and sometimes she tells us she’s Aang and sometimes she tells us she’s Korra.

The problem with this question is that there’s a chance that my kid, like me, is trans. Who knows? I certainly don’t, and she doesn’t either. And this question is telling me, a parent of a toddler, that it is a developmental milestone for her to have internalized the gender binary and the conflation of sex and gender so well (reinforced, of course, by my parenting choices) that she already knows how she’s supposed to identify and that ‘correct’=‘cisgender’.

How can it be a developmental milestone to rip that choice away from her, to silence her, before she even knows what she has to say about it?

*There was, apparently, talk of putting my three year old on a diet, but that’s getting its very own post, so stay tuned.

**Conversation for another day: I believe in a binary of biological sex as much as I believe in a binary of gender—that is, not in the least.

Meeting All The Deadlines No Matter The Cost

deadline

I am not an ambitious person. People don’t believe me when I say it, but it’s true. I don’t really care about external validation or accomplishments, but I gather them up anyway, so I can see how they’d be confused. But the truth is that I can’t help it. It’s my anxiety. I need stability, and stability comes from social and cultural capital—my ability to ape and secure a middle-class life for myself and my family—so I do what needs doing to get it.

My anxiety disorder and I are frenemies. On the one hand, the way it manifests makes it incredibly easy to pass. I am an extraordinarily productive person. I have to be doing things all the time. It’s like I have to leave a trail of created things in my wake to prove I haven’t wasted all this time I’ve spent living. I am writing this piece on the bus ride home right now. I cannot ever seem to just sit and relax like my partners can. I am, in fact, so anxious about being able to do all the things I’ve convinced myself I have to do that I’m a savant at time management. At work, I can get through in eight hours what would take colleagues of mine something closer to twelve hours. I have to, otherwise I never feel safe. Otherwise I feel like the ax is about to drop and I’ll be fired. And I’ve lived like this my entire life, so I have a hell of a poker face. Impossibly tight turnaround time? No problem! Scope of project far too large for one person? Says you!

Here’s the thing: it’s easy for me to pass because I’m productive. In this society, demonstrable productivity is used as a way to measure someone’s worth. To be a “productive member of society” is the goal. Schools are supposed to train children to grown up to be productive. Parents are supposed to give their kids the tools to be productive. The homeless and poor and unwell are a drain on society precisely because they are not productive. This is the rhetoric we hear every day. This is the rhetoric I have used to pass, because we don’t understand how mental illness can coexist with such culturally sanctioned productivity.

You can see where this is going, right? On the surface everything looks great. I’m high-achieving and high-performing by virtually every metric there is. But below the surface is another story, because as much as we’re taught to value productivity the truth is that productivity is not an index of mental health. I have a history of neglecting my physical needs in order to meet unreasonable deadlines imposed on me, things like working twelve hours straight without stopping to eat or go to the bathroom. Things like completely revising an academic article for revision to a prestigious journal without any help from my advisor at his behest while a month giving birth. I did that on essentially no sleep. My advisor was impressed; I received a pat on the back and a request to work on another article. That’s when I had an epiphany.

A month postpartum, so anxious about my baby that I literally could not sleep, I was both ridiculously productive and an absolute emotional wreck. It took me way, way too long to realize that I was living with severe anxiety in large part because the anxiety was manifesting in a way that is culturally sanctioned. I was productive, but I wasn’t ok. And looking back all I could see where the thousands of other times I’d been so anxious, so panicked, that I forged ahead and produced whatever needed producing instead of asking to be accommodated.

It’s a lot of work to unlearn the associations I have between productivity and mental health. I think this is partly because of me, because I’m a person who has always been happiest working, but a lot of it is society. My capacity to get enormous amounts of shit done has been a quality that has been praised and rewarded my entire life. It’s the thing that made me look sane. It’s still a tension I struggle with within myself, though I struggle now much more self-consciously.

I think about this a lot. This is like any other kind of passing—it’s a short-term fix with negative long-term consequences. I pass for sane, for someone with a brain that works right, because that’s safe. There’s still stigma. There are still biases. If I told my boss that I have an anxiety disorder it would change how I interact with her, and I’m an at-will employee who doesn’t want to take that risk. But the flip side of passing, in this case of being productive, is that doing so forces me to reproduce a particularly subtle and pervasive form of ableism. I’m not trying to change how my coworkers and supervisors approach mental health and accommodations. I’m not trying to make my workplace more emotionally sustainable for me and others. I’m trying to use the veneer of normalcy I have learned to project to get me through this day, through this week, through this month. And in the doing I enable my supervisors to develop unrealistic expectations for what I can/should be able to do in what timeframe and with what resources.

I can pass, but it takes a toll. I have to pass to feed my family, but sometimes it means choosing between productivity and my own mental and emotional health. Passing for sane is both a mark of privilege (since I can cover it and I can be productive the way society deems worthwhile) and a mark of marginalization (since I have to cover it in the first place). I can pass, and I do it, but I wish I didn’t have to. Using productivity to hide my anxiety disorder is like any other kind of lie: it grows in the telling and becomes its own prison.

I am B, and I am a they (Not Melissa, and not a she)

Some of you know this already, and some of you don’t, but just so we’re all on the same page, I am officially coming out as genderqueer. I am a trans* person. I’m also just plain queer (i.e. not straight) while I’m outing myself. If you end up bored and don’t read past this first paragraph what this means for you is that I prefer to be called B (not Melissa) and that I prefer singular ‘they’ pronouns to female pronouns (so don’t call me she). Also, please don’t call me a mother – Zadie calls me her baba.

For those of you remaining, know that I am about to vomit gender feelings all over the internet. First, I’m going to attempt to describe my current relationship to my body, how it’s gendered, how I experience gender, etc. And then, I’ll go into why I think of myself as a they and not a she.

Me, Myself & I: Gender Weirdness Extravaganza
Do you have any idea how often we are asked to disclose our gender? I have come to dread this. Buying plane tickets sucks. Signing up for websites sucks. Any form of intake sucks. They suck because I have to put down female, which is then taken to mean woman, which is increasingly uncomfortable to me.

Gender has always been complicated for me, but it’s grown much more so in the last few years. The other night while I was walking home from work I was struck by a realization that when I was kid, maybe like eleven or twelve, I used to think a lot about the directions my life could go. Maybe I’d be a courtoom lawyer (like Sam Waterston in Law & Order!!). Maybe I’d be a rabble-rousing politician. Or a scientist. Or a musician. And I remember imagining myself in these possible lives and invariably imagining myself as a man. A man, incidentally enough, who didn’t look all that different than I do these days. It was a simple thing, and it wasn’t the ache and yearning thing you see in a lot of culturally sanctioned trans* narratives. It was just…I knew I was going to grow up a woman, but I ended up with this vision of myself as a man anyway.

Note that I said in that first paragraph that I’m genderqueer, not a trans man. After years and years of grueling work coming to love my body, of living in it and being it, I am as much a woman as I am anything else. But that’s the kicker: womanhood is just part of it.

These days I have this instinct to get flippant when forms as my gender. Gender? Chimerical. In flux. Weird. Fuckery. Paradoxical. That’s what fits me.

The Reason For They
I know for a fact that some of the people who will read this are grammar nuts who are totally fine with gender variance, but not really that fine with the bastardly singular they. There are likely people reading this who could give a rat’s ass about pronouns because they will never respect the facts of my gender identity, but those people can go fuck themselves. This section is addressed to the grammar nuts (I love y’all!)

I like they. I am a they. I like the expansiveness of it; I like its encompassing nature. My gender contains fucking multitudes. It is an ensemble film. It is a moving target. ‘They’ captures that. ‘They’ articulates this dual and tripled and quadrupled sense of gender I have: that I am sometimes a woman and sometimes a man and always both and always neither.

‘They’ plays with and breaks the binary. A singular they, to me and in reference to me, is politicized: a rejection of the contraints of a language that has been influenced by binarism, coercive gender assignments, and cis privilege.

There is, to me, a sense of potential when one uses they to describe a person whose gender is not known. Could be either. Could be neither. I like this protean quality it has; in the morning when I wake I could be either, could be neither. They is an umbrella term for all the possibilities and iterations of me, grammar be damned.

So, call me B, and call me they. Call me Zadie’s Baba. I’m asking nicely once. I’m reminding you that it’s only decent to do this, and also stating for the record that I don’t much care how confusing this is for you or how hard it is for you. I am always willing to answer questions, but I reserve the right to ignore those questions if they bother me.

This is a huge scary thing for me, and I’m telling you all this because it’s important to me.