ARIAH Countdown: Building a Genderqueer Culture

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Being gay, lesbian or bisexual isn’t an issue. Homophobia is the issue. While it’s a significant problem in the real world, I think that leaving it behind in a fantasy world is a wonderful and empowering way to say that being gay really is OK.

The above quote was written by Malinda Lo in regard to her novels Ash and Huntress. She writes about how in creating the secondary fantasy worlds in which her queer characters live she as the writer was presented with a choice—are these worlds homophobic, or are they not? Will her characters experience stigma for their queerness, or will their queerness simply be another kind of love?

I read Lo’s article just this week, but it got me thinking about why and how I created one of the cultures within Ariah. Towards the end of the book, in desperate straits, Ariah is forced to wander the eastern grasslands where the nomadic Droma elves live. The Droma elves are a hunted people—taken as slaves by both the Qin Empire where Ariah himself hails from and by the pirate colonies to the south of the Empire. The fact that they are hunted makes them necessarily wary of outsiders. The fact that they trickle into the Empire as slaves means that Ariah, who has a great facility for languages, has already learned to speak Droma by listening to the slaves at market.

One thing about the Droma language that has fascinated Ariah long before he ever meets the Droma in the grasslands (he keeps his distance from the slaves) is that they do not define gender as he himself does (or as most people in the real western world do):

And there was the question of gender, too. At first, it seemed binaristic like most other languages, like Qin and Semadran. There were terms for male and female, differentiations I heard the slaves use for those not of their culture and for animals. But I never heard them use such distinctions towards themselves. It took me some time to parse it, but it became increasingly clear that the Droma did not understand themselves as men or women, but simply as people. The slaves in the city, likely as a means of survival, acknowledged that we divided ourselves as such, and they must have understood that we divided them that way, too, but in the conversations I overheard they only ever used variations on the word voe—the Droma word for “person”—to refer to other Droma and themselves. It fascinated me—how could something so fundamental and so obvious as gender go unseen among them? And what did it mean? How could I be myself without being a man? I wanted very much to understand it, but it was elusive and exotic and always just out of my reach. I couldn’t help but gender them while listening: that one is a male person who is speaking to a female person went my thoughts.

Once Ariah is out in the grasslands, his only hope of survival is to be adopted by a Droma clan. When, by a stroke of luck, he is adopted by a Droma clan, he is confronted with this question of gender (or, rather, the lack of it) again:

I remembered the strangeness of Droma gender. I tried very hard to ignore all the signs of biological sex, to see the child as a person, as voe. If I was to encroach on their lands and ask for their help in survival, I felt the least I could do was get this one basic thing right. But it was hard. It took a very long time before it was easy, or natural, and even then it was hard.

So, here’s the thing about the Droma: to many of you out there they may seem strange. To me, they don’t. I’m genderqueer. I would fit right in. I didn’t set out to build a culture around that, one where I would fit right in—and actually I probably would only fit in in terms of gender because I really hate moving and am otherwise unsuited to a nomadic lifestyle. But the Droma evolved into an agender/genderqueer culture in my worldbuilding quite naturally. When it came time to decide, explicitly, whether they had genders it was easy for me to decide that they didn’t, largely for the reasons that Lo cited above.

Being trans* and/or gender-variant isn’t an issue. Transphobia and unexamined binarism is the issue.

Now this is already a long post, I know, but if you want to know more about what I mean by that, feel free to keep reading. I take a very materialistic approach to worldbuilding, especially as it regards to gender roles within a given culture. And, historically, cultures marred by a lack of resources—cultures characterized by lack and want—develop into very rigid gendered structures. Protection of lineage, parentage, and all that.

But the opposite often proves true as well. If the population is small, and if resources are abundant, then there’s no pressing need to pay strict attention to gender—note that paying strict attention to gender is code for controlling women’s bodies. But it could also mean literally just noticing and codifying gender period.

So, for the Droma, for whom the grasslands provide plentiful resources, and for whom roles in the clan are divvied up based on age and skill, gender literally doesn’t come up. Food and other resources are shared. Childrearing is communal, so lineages are not tied to inheritance or wealth or even parentage the same way they are in, say, the Qin Empire. It is a culture in which gender does not make sense. Even though the Droma have the same biological plumbing as Ariah (as you and I do), it’s still a culture where gender as a social construct does not make sense.

One wonders what kind of culture shock this means for the Droma who get taken as slaves—this is not yet something I’ve explored in my writing. Something I do know is that it has created a kind of minor reverse culture shock in some of my beta readers. At least one of the quotes above was added in edits due to feedback received because a reader thought Ariah adjusted to the Droma’s concept of gender too quickly.

I’ve said before that I like speculative fiction’s ability to pose radical ‘what ifs’. I think this is one of those for me. What if such a culture existed? What would it be like? For me, those are powerful questions worth asking.

#transdayofvisibility

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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

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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.

On Not “Leaning In”

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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.

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.

New Pub: “Crossing the Bridge” in GLITTERWOLF

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Apparently this is the week of new pubs, eh? I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Crossing the Bridge”, is included in issue #5 of Glitterwolf. The issue is available for purchase here, and I encourage y’all to check it out! Here’s a synopsis of the story to whet your appetite:

Maxine Yvette Martin dies. Maxine Yvette Martin lurks in the void. Then, Maxine Yvette Martin catches a break and slips into the body of suicidal young man. Her stolen body miraculously survives a fall from the Golden Gate Bridge, and Maxine Yvette Martin starts a second life as Max Hoffman. This body might be new, but her mind is still the same, and she struggles to find a way to live a familiar life in deeply unfamiliar circumstances.

CROSSING THE BRIDGE is a completed short story 5,600 words in length. It explores the nature of gender, the nature of compromise, and the way we shape the world to ourselves in order to survive.

I am so glad this story found a home with Glitterwolf. This story was a stretch for me—a contemporary piece, a fantasy not set in Aerdh, a ghost story, a short story written while I was still learning how to write short stories. And this story is personal; this story is about being trans*. Glitterwolf is a publication that celebrates LGBT poets and writers, and given that I poured a lot of my own transness into this story, given how linked the content of the story and my lived experiences as its creator are, I am really happy it found a home in a publication where my own queerness and transness can be explicitly stated. Many thanks to Matt Cresswell, editor of Glitterwolf, for including my story in the issue!

a spine as strong as spider’s silk

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This is a poem about myself to myself. As a trans* person, a gender variant person, a genderqueer person, I experience varying degrees of body dysphoria on the regular. I do yoga virtually every night, alone and in the dark of my bedroom, which helps me reconnect with what my body is, the beauty of its limits and its realities. It’s a simple and purely physical experience, this ritual of coaxing my body into shapes. That experience is what I’ve tried to capture in this poem.

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

Note: I don’t do these personal posts often as I try to keep this blog about my writing, but if you’re interested in my personal life/thoughts on things like gender check out my tumblr.

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.