Gender Has Been Complicated for Me
Cw: discussion of sex/gender, cisheterosexism, etc.
I should first note that this is not a scholarly piece. I’m not a scholar and I really don’t like most queer scholars I read because, well, I won’t go into it. What I’m describing is solely my experience and I write for my own healing but if it’s beneficial to someone else, that is also really great! This is my personal perspective and experience only and is not a “gender/queer studies” piece.
Gayness and queerness wasn’t popularly represented in my childhood. When it was represented, it was a plot device, a gag, or it was highly censored. I can remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer airing decapitations and r*pes, but the same show could not show Willow and Tara, two women, kiss on screen…so, you can imagine what that put into the psyche of anyone who wasn’t both cisgender and heterosexual.
I can remember feeling different as early as elementary school.
But at first, I didn’t feel different! What I perceived to be the world was normal. My parents never policed gender in my early life. I don’t even think they thought I was different at all.
I was awkward and shy, but I was also girly. I can remembering asking a fellow kid why it was okay for their to be tomboys but not tomgirls. Of course, I was young, so I didn’t have the concept of how much tomboys face violent misogyny. So, at the time, it seemed like a privilege to be able to wear jeans, have short hair, like toy soldiers, and other “boy” things. I felt slighted that the world had place for that but not for little boys who liked “girl” things. Why did it have to be so binary anyway?
I wore a pillow case over my head to mimic long hair so I could be the “mom” when we played house.
I grew up with brothers and we played house. I always played the Mom. I used to copy my mother’s mannerisms, she wasn’t super feminine, but she wasn’t masculine by any means. My brothers played along with me, of course there was some light teasing, but it never bothered me. When we played Legos, I selected the girls. I felt free in my home to be this way. I didn’t have the language for it and I hadn’t developed any romantic or sexual attraction yet, but I knew, as they used to say, “something about that boy [me] wasn’t right”.
Fellow 6 years old policed the way I sat.
In 1st grade music class, I had the audacity to sit with my legs crossed over one another like pictured from this stock image below:
This was a crime. All of the children, boys and girls alike, began correcting me. “You’re sitting like a girl!” I was so embarrassed! Was I absent at school one day and missed the rules? Nobody told me. How did ALL these kids know this but not I? They didn’t just yell at me though, they offered help. They showed me how to sit like a man:
Listen. I can’t even describe the leg crossing styles (I’m sure there is terms), but there is the picture for you. I didn’t know I was so controversial but I do know this: I complied. I didn’t want to be seen as a girl (the misogyny in boys being seen as girly is one hell of a drug that kicks in early!) Actually, that really wasn’t true, I just didn’t want to be harassed and bullied.
The controversy of my hand on my hip
Since I was absent from gender class, I didn’t just not know about the sitting with your legs crossed thing. Apparently, the way you stand is also subject to gender scrutiny. I was in the playground and we were about to play kickball. I was standing with my left hand on my lip and right foot slightly extended, as pictured:
It prompted immediate controversy, with the boys and girls sounding the alarm! I’d done it again, I thought! At least one young girl stuck up for me, although the real reason she was doing it was because she hated the initial girl that called me out — but hey, I was willing to be ammunition for her since it brought me some protection. Thanks Crystal!
The way I walked was too girly. So, I started practicing how to walk differently.
That time my mom painted my nails clear.
My mom broke the rules of parenting because I had taken an interest in her manicure. She wasn’t one for colors usually, but she did like a clear coat. One day, I asked her if I could do it, and she said yes, and did it!
My parents had been divorced since I was 1 and my Dad worked odd hours. My Dad, like my mother, really had no stance on things like gender roles in children, at least not one I can recall. His new wife, my now former stepmother, however was different.
She lost her shit over those clear nails! I can’t remember much about what she said because I was a small child but it was clearly controversial. My Dad, I love him, but he wasn’t one for conflict, so I don’t think he stood up to her. It’s important to know my former stepmother had an extreme hatred for my mother, so I don’t know for sure if she was really this bothered by the nails or just found a great outlet to cast more doubt on my mother’s parenting ability — but either way, it’s pretty awful, and traumatizing!
I played with my stepsisters barbies when no one was around. I especially loved Hollywood Barbie and another Barbie, who we called orange Holly, because she wore an orange dress and we were super creative children. When my paternal grandmother came to take her grandkids to Lion King, I declined so I could stay home with just my Dad. Once he got drifted off into his evening book, I could play with orange Holly!
Oh, and don’t forget — the way I looked at my nails!
The above was the “girl way”. Yes, I’m telling you, no one caught me up in the gender class, so I really didn’t know. One time, a boy came up to me and asked me to look at my nails. He did it on purpose because he had a hypothesis with his friends that I would do it the girl way. I did. By the way, the boy way is below:
Being a little boy was really challenging. I would gradually learn how to mask certain effeminate behaviors but would quickly revert back, especially when I felt comfortable, which was rare. I was scared going into boy’s bathrooms. It didn’t help that one time in 10th grade, in the 400 hall of Hillsborough High School, three male students attacked me in the bathroom and forced me into a stall, but I broke free before anything else could happen. I never told any parent or authority this happened, but long before it did, I feared it. I continued to fear it and still have some minor anxieties when going into men’s bathrooms outside of gay bars.
I also hated the boys locker room. I hated it because when I would see the boys, I would feel attraction (no, I wasn’t creeping, but it was right in front of you, and the teenage hormones got to raging). I hated that I liked boys! I had crushes on boys most of my young childhood, and even a couple of little girls, but by middle school, I was having sexual thoughts and they didn’t involve women. My peers talked about girls, usually in violent misogynistic ways, but girls nonetheless. I was the f*ggot and the b*tch.
I hated the locker room so much, I exempted physical education by convincing my orchestra teacher that I was passionate about playing the cello. She convinced my Dad, who loved supporting this hobby and seeing me grow, that it was best I take orchestra every day, instead of taking P.E. on B Day. It worked and I got exempted. I pretended to enjoy a whole hobby to avoid the confrontations I feared in the boys locker room. My Dad bought me own cello when I was in 9th grade — I felt so bad about it, but the charade was survival.
I hung out with mostly girls, as I felt safer with them then (although many of them were highly antagonistic as well, it was verbal and less physically threatening).
I lived in the glass closet. Everyone “knew” I was gay and I knew it too, but I hated it. As long as I never said it, I could still have some plausible deniability.
The relentless bullying continued until I dropped out of high school at 16, including occasionally teachers joining in on the jokes at our expense.
I continued to hate gayness, queerness, and myself for being those things until I found my first gay family, the Tampa legend House of Bone, who brought me in. I found my drag family, went to my first gay bars, starting having sex, and embracing the imperfect but ever necessary gay culture of the time. It was MUCH different prior to 2015 when gay marriage became legal. I use 2015 as an imperfect signifier of when gay “acceptance” changed, but I know that it was a gradual process, upticking especially from 2008 through 2015. Still, undeniably, post 2015 has been very different than before 2015 in that regard. This means I spent most of my young life feeling quite maligned and like an outsider — my gay family helped make that survivable.
I tried drag and felt something I hadn’t before.
The first drag queen I ever saw was at Valentine’s Night Club, and it was Esme Russell, a transgender Latina who has been doing drag since the 1970s. I was really interested in the art, and then I became a super fan! I wanted to be at every drag show, and fell in love with glamour and pageant drag. The local drag scene was so special, albeit a lot more exclusiveness and not as open-minded, in those days. It was very much more cut throat. Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, we enjoyed it at bars together and we went to pageants.
I decided to give it a try.
The image above is of me the third or fourth time I was in drag, and no I did not do my own makeup or dressing, my drag family did, I have no skills.
In the image, you’ll notice I have these long, press on nails clinging to my cocktail.
My drag sister, Sasha, told me on the way to the event, I couldn’t stop looking at my nails!
They were fake, but I loved them! I felt so feminine. But I also loved the wig, the dress, and the fact that my mannerisms didn’t feel strange.
Was I a crossdresser? A woman? I didn’t know the term gender-fluid yet.
It wasn’t necessarily the first time I had to explore and interrogate gender. I used to love the anime Ranma 1/2 and dream that I could switch between the sexes. I thought how easy my life would be if I was a girl — of course, I didn’t have the concept of misogyny, so I realize now that it wouldn’t have been so easy, but perspective at that time was very different.
To be a straight cis woman would have been a dream, I thought!
So what was I? Why did I like the freedom of the feminine clothing and why did I love these nails? Was I transgender? Was I a cross dresser?
What I know today is I still enjoy “women’s” clothing and girly things, including painting my nails colors — but I rarely do it because I’m not leaving the house dressed the way. In the U.S. South, I’m already a target for being a f*ggot, so I’m not about to hasten it by being a f*ggot in a dress.
I don’t always want to dress that way, though. I’m not uncomfortable in “men’s” clothing and I look and feel good in it. It is the absence of choice that pains me.
I don’t believe I’m a woman. I don’t feel that identity is for me. I don’t know what it means to be one and I really like being a gay man, it’s fun as hell. I love having sex with men as a man.
I don’t always feel like a “man”, but recognize I politically am one. Even if I decided to stop identifying as a man, I’d still likely benefit from the same level of male privilege I do now (which as an effeminate gay man, its not as much as my cis hetero counterparts, but it’s still there. Just not always.) Even if I decided to stop identifying as a man tomorrow, my right to love my boyfriend would still be challenged based on my assignment on my legal documents and how he and I are seen in the world.
My chosen name, Angel, is typically considered a universal name, and I enjoy that fact. My effeminate voice tied with the name Angel means I get called ma’am on phone calls, and I hate it, mainly out of vanity, since ma’am is how we address older women in the South. I am not bothered by being called she, her, or miss on phone calls (and to this day my drag family use she/her and I use she/her on them universally — unless asked not to). Although I am not bothered by miss or she/her, I don’t feel a sense of euphoria by it either — except when called miss/she/her by a gay/queer man, trans woman or femme (but not cis women, including cis queer women). At the same time, I am neither bothered nor charmed by mister, dude, bro or he/him. I hate sir equally to ma’am, so it’s again back to the vanity of it. Being called by they/them also does not excite me, and it doesn’t bother me per se, but if someone does it more than once, I correct them. After all, I had to fight really hard to be seen as a “man” even though I’m so girly.
In reality, I think, for me, gender is just absurd. I personally don’t find gender useful. I am not attracted to women, cis or trans, that’s true, and I am only attracted to men, cis or trans, typically…but of course some non-binary masculine folks have caught my eye. For all intents and purposes, I’m a homoromantic homosexual, so I go by gay. That is how I fit in the world and now I love the word gay and being called gay and everything gay.
It took me so long to NOT hate being a gay man, so I am going to love being a gay man forever. One day, we will no longer need to perceive people as gay, bi, or straight, if we get the genderless society I imagine, but that day isn’t today and probably won’t happen by the time I’m 100 in 2089 (if I survive that long).
Sometimes, I do feel genderless, and I’ve looked into agender as an identity — but I just don’t feel like it. I don’t feel like reading about it anymore. I sure as hell am not going by a neo pronoun, because I am too fucking lazy, if I’m being honest. I have had enough heterosexism, I’m not looking to live with any version of cissexism on top of it — and yes, this is a privileged stance, but alas, it’s one I’m able and willing to take. I will respect your pronouns though, whether it be traditional or a neo pronoun.
Please don’t impose what you learned in queer and gender studies on me, either. You do you. I will continue to identify as a cis gay man until the day comes that I decide that doesn’t serve me, because it’s where I fit positionally in society.
But gender is limitless because it does only exist as a construct. The beauty in that is cis man or not, I can express my gender how I feel in the moment, when and where it feels safe. For now, my safest space to express anything outside of non-”masculine” clothing is in the privacy of my own home and maybe Halloween. One day, maybe, I’ll be more expressive in public with more than my mannerisms, but maybe I never will — and that is okay too.
I hope everyone, cis or otherwise, explores their gender and interrogates it and then lands where they feel the most authentic, even if that changes over time.
I know she’s problematic and I acknowledge that, but she was influential to my early gay days, so I’ll link my favorite song by Lady Gaga, called “The Queen”. The lyrics resonate with me when I feel my most expressive in “feminine” appearance:
Whenever I start feeling strong
I’m called a bitch in the night
But I don’t need these 14 karat guns to win
I am a woman, I insist, it’s my life
I can be, the queen that’s inside of me
This is my chance to release
And be brave for you, you’ll see
I can be, the queen you need me to be
This is my chance to be the dance
I’ve dreamed it’s happening
I can be the queen