My Gender Variance (or, How Can You be Two People at Once when You’re Really Nobody at all?)
I’m slow. Yup, I admit it. Not slow as in “can’t tie my shoes” or figure out how to eat peanut butter without an instruction manual. I mean slow as in “I need (and often need to take) time” to figure something out, to analyze an idea or a piece of writing to make sense of it. It has taken me a while to come to a place where I’m not ashamed of that, but there it is. One side effect is that I tend to delve deeply; I read something slowly, carefully, taking time to savor it, figure it out, chase down interesting tangents, or pursue ideas. All of that is a good thing. Mostly. The one thing I am often left with is that I’m behind. Way behind. So it goes.
The latest behind-ism is that I just, finally, finished reading a rather lengthy article in the New York Times magazine from August (yes, 2012). The reward is substantial. The article in question is about gender variance: ‘Boygirl’ by Ruth Padawer is a provocative set of ideas. While I don’t agree with every one of them, it’s left no doubt at all in my mind that I am a highly gender variant person. As I read it, I kept feeling some odd twinge of familiarity, a variant of strange déjà vu, leaving me a little puzzled but unsure: haven’t I been this before? Then on page 23, it hit me: I played with dolls, a lot, when I was a kid. Not the usual stuff, no Barbies and glamour outfits (there weren’t any where I lived as boy). Rather, I had a ton of small stuffed animals. I made little outfits and dressed them up, built little villages, had domestic arguments, the whole bit. I still have a few, too, if that matters to you.
My parents were the product of a much earlier age, the one that grew out of the post-Victorian malaise over all sorts of things. Women had ‘hysteria’ (turns out we were oh so wrong on that one). Men who were slightly (or not so slightly) effeminate “suffered” from the unspeakable “disease” of homosexuality. All of these were, of course, social constructions, but they were common markers not just of who an individual was, but how society was organized at that time. Conform or suffer the consequences, a terrible fate awaits those who ignore this dire admonition. And in the realm of gender, it was dire indeed. But I digress: this is not intended to be a history of those times. I mention all of this because it is easy to forget that a large percentage of the living population in this country is a product of that mindset. Our parents and grandparents took those ideas very, very seriously.
What this meant for me, at least as near as I can recall, is that my mother opted, I think, to provide adequate substitutes for the things I seemed to want. Dolls? Cute little fuzzy animals. Clothes? Some minor indulgences (nope, never had a dress). She functioned as well as she could within the strict framework of a social organization that lords over certain domains (like gender) as well as any tyrant could lord over a people. I, on the other hand, was blissfully oblivious. After all, I had my little girl hippo, and she had a thing for the little boy rhino. I had the big Buffy (buffalo) and the mommy buffalo, suitably smaller. These and all the rest lived happily in their little village, with kitchens and dress shops and parks. We were very creative. We? Yes, I have a strong memory of hours upon hours spent with a slightly younger playmate who, if memory serves, was, well, decidedly feminine in some ways, just like me. We shared our world of dolls and loved it all. Our moms left us pretty well alone, making sure we had lunch and got to bed at a decent hour.
It has taken me a long time to fit the pieces of my life together. Some of these efforts have been challenging, and this one around gender certainly has been. And it was this reading that finally helped me put some of the remaining parts in place. Doubtless there are still more pieces, but this one provided a pretty good “key”. I am highly gender variant. I am both boy and girl, and I am both male and female. Now, at the ripe old age of, well, let’s just say I’m a lot older than I was then, I feel, finally, a bit vindicated. I know who I am now. That’s not to say I am not still fearful when I go out adorned a certain way, looking on the outside like the person I feel I am on the inside, but realizing that I may well be garnering looks of scorn, possibly disgust, from others whose ideas about gender conformity fit, and date back to, the times of my parents and grand parents – and they don’t even know it (and could care even less). Up to this point, I’ve embarked on these small steps with real trepidation, feeling mostly lost and alone, an outcast both socially and sexually, as I try and be true to who I am while bucking the confines of a gender-policed state (and yes, it really is policed. Contact me if you have a hard time believing this – I’ve given workshops on that topic before and would love to present them again).
We all need a certain kind of permission, I think, to be the person we really are inside. Much of the time, that permission must come from us as individuals, as we struggle to figure out who we are, what we want, who we love and so forth. And at times, such mundane decisions are, in fact, mediated by the larger social milieu of which we are a part. The decision to marry, for instance, is a complex set of internal (“we love each other”, or, “let’s have kids”, kind of thing) and external (“is she or he good enough for you”, or, “are you sure this is the best time”, or some other variation) forces that we often are not even aware of. The external forces here can often be more powerful than the internal ones and can make for a lot of pain much later in life, at least that’s my theory. But when we try and find that deeper internal compass of who we are, what makes us tick, what brings us the most pleasure, what gives us strength and allows us to feel truly alive to the point when what we bring to the world is joyful and powerful, things can get a little weird for some of us. For me, and, I am very certain, many of those whose experience of themselves has been a puzzle and predicament because of this odd social “rule” that attempts to foist upon all of us a rigid definition of what constitutes a member of our social group – that is, gender – it gets not just weird but downright painful, sometimes fatal.
For it’s when we choose to step fully past the hard concrete barriers that have written on them in large blue and pink letters “BOY” and “GIRL” that we get hit over the head with the contradiction we are and the contradiction we are producing for everyone else. Suddenly, we are “sick” or “criminal” or misguided or misaligned, something to be “cured” or otherwise managed. That’s wrong, and crazy, so let me tell you plain and simple: we’re not that at all. We are as normal as the next person, as regular a “guy” as the fellow sitting next to you right now, as typical a “girl” as you’d ever want to take home to mom.
It feels like it should be as simple as seeing ‘Ma Vie en Rose’ and exclaiming that anyone can be just who they wanna be! Ain’t it just GRAND? I wish. I saw that film too and believe me, as touching as it is, it just doesn’t seem to work that way. This is a long process, sometimes a painful struggle, and it has taken me to the edge of the world more than once. But through all of it, the confusion, the hurt, the bafflement, the various joys, the love, the sharing, I’m still here, still standing, and now, finally, it is starting to feel like I can be whole.
In fact, I’ve been very lucky. Despite the omnipresence of a long marriage with children and the effect that has on the individual psyche (I call it “being in the gopher hole”), I’ve emerged from that experience a bit wiser. One of the people I met and loved along the way was so, well, nonplussed by the “me” of that time (and I was considerably more adept at hiding then) and let me feel so, normal, that it was almost as though all the “other” people out there were the real oddballs. Another partner has been very accepting of this, and while I suspect that there’ve been a few moments of “now what do I do?” for her, there have been as many times of simply embracing it, loving it, playing with it. More recently, a new partner said, without any real prompting, something about me that, I think, deeply characterized me in a way I loved hearing (I’d secretly felt this way for a while). I was amazed and flattered and thrilled (and no, I’m not telling here! That’s between the two of us). It’s been a whirlwind, really, of love and some lust and a lot of other people whom I wish I saw regularly (I truly hope you all know who you are – I’ve written about a few of you) offering support in both direct and indirect ways, providing me opportunities to expand my being, be my being, and, in the end, learn, ever so slowly, how to be true to myself.
Doubtless, a few who find this and read it will think less of me. I long ago recognized that one price I would pay was the loss of some I would like to call friends (and I still have this awful dread that I will wind up alone and friendless). So be it. Still others will find and read this and think, I hope, a little more of me, recognize, maybe, that some of what they saw in me was now understandable, that some of the times of pain and absence were not about the immediate context but rather about the ways in which I learned to run and hide when I didn’t know what to do or how to be. Still others will, perhaps, see this and wonder why it took so long, how they might like me or even love me more than they do now. I don’t know. Here’s what I do know: that it is possible to open up to myself, step past much of the fear and just be. And here I will openly thank some of my teachers: Barbara Carellas and Dr. Betty Martin, for giving me the tools and the time to really pry myself open in a way I never expected to be able to do, to really, truly, and, I hope, finally, be true to myself; Tristan Taormino, who opened the door for me both as a teacher and healer, but also welcomed me into a way of being that was scary and exhilarating. There are many more to thank, and I love them all.
And if by chance someone who passes this way is one of those poor parents who simply doesn’t know what to do, or is struggling to find a way to accept with an open heart their own child who is free and easy with this gender stuff, or if the person reading this is part of a program that fosters this in kids or needs to have it in their school, well, I would love the chance to walk into a room or a space just as I am, right now, and show those parents and those kids or those teachers that yes, it is possible to be fully who you are. It is possible to survive the crazy attitudes and anger and ignorance and hate and stifling theologies and, after the long road through childhood and teenager and young adult, be a real, caring, deep, well balanced, loving generous person, with faults and fears and crazy creativity and to begin to love yourself for it.
I can’t help but wonder: did my mom “know”? Did she in her own way figure out that I was somehow different, and, rather than try and redirect me, or worse, beat it out of me, instead find small ways to let me open up? Have I been so ignorant or fearful or angry of my own past, so well versed in hiding, that I failed to notice this? Perhaps. But I now know this: if my mother did know, and instead had chosen the opposite tack, of trying to expunge this internal being-ness of me, of quashing that boygirl, that male-female, I’d be in a lot more pain, and would never have experienced some of the beauty and wonder that I have had in my life.
So all of you kids (no matter what your real age) out there – go ahead and be exactly who you are. It’s a good place to be, even if it’s scary. And if you have a mom and a dad or two moms or two dads or just one parent and they’re letting you enjoy that freedom, go for it, and remember them in the years ahead.