I was never very good at being a boy.
Boys are supposed to like sports and hunting and engine grease and playing with trucks. Not girly things like dolls and home decoration and fashion and playing with an easy bake oven.
Boys are flannel and denim and dirt under their nails. Girls are satin and lace and glitter on their nails.
Boys are tough and stern. They are quick to battle their foes to defend their honor. They pursue girls like a lion hunting a gazelle. Girls are soft and sensitive. They cry easily. They gather with other girls like gazelles, seeking safety in numbers from the constant threat of predators.
Sure, in this modern era, these gender norms are increasingly challenged. Which is part of the reason why, even though I’ve always resonated with and reflected feminine stereotypes more than masculine ones, it took me 45 years to seriously consider the possibility that I’m queer.
As a child, I think others picked up on it. I was bullied a lot and called the usual slurs hurled at femmy little boys.
By my mid 20s, though, I was bearded, broad shouldered, and had a rich baritone voice. And I tried to play the part of a burley man. But, as I reflect, it is abundantly clear to me at this point that it was all cosplay. It was an awkward performance of masculinity that was actively painful. I just chalked that pain up to existential dread or mental illness or assumed that everyone felt the same way about things.
It wasn’t as though my self-denial was rooted in some sort of overt transphobia. I’ve been vehemently queer-affirming for years. To the point of continually chastising groups for being merely tolerant of queer folx when celebration is required. To the point of engaging in direct actions against transphobic groups. To the point of having best friends who are transgender.
Gender is a hell of a habit to break.
Jesus is Queer
It was impossible for me, until July 2021, to see myself as anything other than a failed man. I had written a Facebook post arguing the case that Jesus is queer (which I have since fleshed out and posted as an article). Folks (predictably) expressed frustration with my post. I found myself getting increasingly agitated. Not out of some egoic need to be right. And not out of solidarity for my queer friends.
I was upset because my sense of self was at stake.
However, I will say that (due to a couple of mystical experiences in my teens) I have always identified with Jesus in ways that go way beyond my capacity to explain. By fully accepting Jesus’ queerness, I was able to accept my own. And in defending Jesus’ queerness, I was defending my own.
It was like a conversion experience. My queer awakening was bound up in my devotion to Jesus. Which is either beautiful or fucked up, depending upon your perspective.
Even at that point, though, I was afraid to lay any claim to femininity. I could, in an apophatic0 way, recognize that gender categories don’t really fit me. I could claim my nonbinary identity, but not a transfeminine way of showing up in the world.
That came a bit later.
Gender is a social construct
Gender is a social script that we preform based upon the role handed to us. Some of us are able to perform that role well, others, not so much. And some of us feel conflicted internally about our performance, others, not so much. This is something Judith Butler delves into much more deeply in their work.1
Societies have varying ways of understanding gender.2 In our society, there tends to be a strict binary between male and female, both when talking about sex and about gender. In fact, we tend to see them as the same thing. I think it is fair and largely helpful to understand that both sex and gender are bimodal (not binary).3 This seems to be a mostly helpful way of framing it at a societal level. However, I think this way of approaching things is still too static and still dips its toe in some sort of essentialism.
These two ideas exist in tension, but aren’t contradictory. Gender is a social construct that cannot be neatly divided into categories. And, at the same time, there are internal factors that determine how “well” we can perform the gender into which we are sorted. And since I cannot be “sorted” into either category, I am nonbinary.
There are lots of ways of being nonbinary. While all nonbinary folks don’t fit within the male/female binary, some say they are a mix of different aspects of the two genders. Others say they fall into the middle. Others say they are some hard-to-place third (or fourth or fifth) gender. Some say they move through the spectrum in a fluid way. Others reject the idea of gender altogether. Some use it to describe their gender identity.4 Others, their gender expression.5
Personally, I use it to describe my gender identity not so much my gender expression. When I say I am “nonbinary” I am saying that gender doesn’t factor into my deepest sense of self. But, currently at least, I express as transfemme.6 That I understand myself to be, fundamentally, nonbinary is why I don’t identify as a trans woman. But I predominantly express as feminine, more and more.
On the gatekeepers of femininity
This makes life complicated. That ciswomen routinely want to police my identity and expression in an effort to gatekeep femininity bothers me. But, at the same time, I don’t quite lay claim to womanhood. Because of this, I’m not exactly sure I want to be inside the gate of whatever they’re guarding.
One of the biggest negative reactions I receive is that my performance of femininity (wearing a wig, using makeup, and other things that, for me are tied up in how I embrace a femme expression7) reinforces patriarchal constructs of what constitutes femininity.
This isn’t a unique or new critique. bell hooks (may she rest in power) and Laverne Cox famously engaged in a public discussion around femininity in 2014. The perspective offered by hooks (and voiced by many feminists, particularly those who came up during the 2nd Wave of feminism) is that this “feeds the the patriarchal gaze” and reinforces patriarchy.8
I love bell hooks and the idea of disagreeing with her fills me with dread. Until she passed, I saw her as a living legend. Now I think of her as a saint. But I think she was wrong about this. And I think the number of cis women who have made similar statements to me are also wrong.
I want to be clear about this: I do believe that resisting gender norms can be a personal act of resistance. I think there is power in a ciswoman’s refusal to dress in conventionally feminine ways. To let their body hair grow out from a place of hard-fought self-acceptance. To reject the foolish idea that women are SUPPOSED to look a particular way. Act a particular way. I’m a fan of that, big time.
But, you can be a legit feminist and not go that route. And many many powerful ciswomen, transwomen, and femmes have fought the patriarchy while looking like the cover of Cosmopoliton.
I notice that such critiques don’t seem so frequent or ardent when my ciswomen friends post make-up adorned selfies.
For a while, I believed this inequity of challenge was rooted in transphobia. And while I think that can still be the case in some cases, I now recognize that there is another factor at play: it is one thing for a ciswoman to express in femme ways since they were born into it. It is another for a transfemme person to seemingly “choose” it in a deliberate way. The additional level of willful choice, I think, bristles. Though, to be clear, I think it is a mistake to frame it as more of a choice for me than for my sister. That assumption of “choice” is, itself, charged with transphobic connotations, often in subtle ways.
Nevertheless, no matter how much nuance flavors the critique, I reject the idea that I am “feeding the patriarchal gaze.” When I, a transgender nonbinary person lay claim to feminine expression, I am directly pushing against the entire concept of a gender binary. And, in so doing, I resist the patriarchy. Maybe not as powerfully as I might, yet powerfully all the same.
Genderfuck, but with winged eyeliner
Which explains the death threats, toxic reactions, and loss of ties to some of my male friends and family. My life is an act of genderfuckery.9
I understand how jarring it is to go from this to this less than a year:
I understand why the picture on the right seems to reinforce femininity as much as the picture on the right reinforces masculinity.
But I am more than my appearance. And even my appearance is more than what can be captured in posed selfie. My “presentation” is more complex than makeup, dress, and wig.
Exploring gender expression has helped me move more deeply into a healthy and more liberated gender identity. And since a thing like “identity” is like a complex interwoven net of many things, to disentangle one thread leads to the potential of disentangling others.
As I gather up increasingly levels of bravery to express my gender in new ways, other things that we might not consider bound up with gender find expression. For example, it has helped me understand my mental health better, giving me more capacity, tenacity, and resilience in my life.
As I lean into feminine expression, some things that we DO consider bound up with gender are shifting as well. In ways that wouldn’t make sense if we fall into a static binary way of thinking about gender. And so, even as I express myself in increasingly femme ways (at times approaching “high femme”), I am becoming less “demure.” I have become fiercer in setting boundaries, more willing to say hard things, and more assertive.
It is a mistake, I think, to assume that such assertiveness is “masculine.” But it certainly pushes against feminine connentions enough to offend people, particularly in juxtaposition to my femininity.
I feel more comfortable cussing (not that I was uncomfortable about it before). For the first time in my life, though, I’ve been told that the combination of my gender expression and my salty language brings dissonance.
For me, as a nonbinary transfemme person, this is serious play. It is genderfuckery that opens doors to deeper and bolder acts of gender transgression that will, in turn, spill over into other areas of subversion. Don’t judge the process by the quick snapshot of a stunning selfie.10
0. “Apophatic” spirituality is a spiritual approach that emphasizes negation. It is a tricky concept, but the basic idea is that any attempt to define the Divine Mystery with words will result in some sort of distortion or violence or deceit. I am not unique in taking that idea and extending it to other areas. It isn’t a big leap to recognize that, if constraining God with fixed categories is a problem, it is also a problem to constrain human beings with fixed categories.
- 1. For some reflections on Butler’s work, take a look at this summary which includes two embedded videos. In the second video, philosopher and actor Abigail Thorn (early or pre-transition) explains the inadequacy of affirming that gender is *just* a social construct or *simply* something we’re born with. She starts to explore the concept of “subconscious sex.” It is complicated, but important, stuff. https://www.openculture.com/2018/02/judith-butler-on-gender-performativity.html
2. See: https://www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/ for just the tip of the iceberg. It is actually WAY more complicated and diverse than this. For one complicated case study, consider the proposal that there were six genders in Ancient Jewish Thought: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/37225?lang=bi
4. Gender Identity is a person’s internal and individual experience of gender. For more on the complicated ways of understanding gender identity, check this out: https://gender.fandom.com/wiki/Models_of_gender_identity
5. Gender Expression is how a person uses mannerism, habits, traits, etc to “perform” their gender. Sometimes Gender Identity and Gender Expression line up. But not always.
6. This is an umbrella term that that includes trans women who don’t consider themselves nonbinary, and nonbinary feminine people. https://nonbinary.wiki/wiki/Transfeminine
7. See more about the various aspects of femme expression here: https://affirmativecouch.com/are-you-femme-what-femme-isnt-and-what-it-is/
9. Genderfuck/Genderpunk is a gender expression or philosophy of gender that deliberately attempts to subvert the idea of a gender binary or transgresses traditional gender roles. A classic example of this is mixing a glorious beard with an elegant dress. But there are a variety of creative ways to fuck with gender. For more, see: https://nonbinary.wiki/wiki/Genderfuck
10. I’ve already noticed a growing draw towards a “hard femme” aesthetic. Hard femme isn’t a term used much today. Hard femmes are feminine presenting, but with a hard edge, an ever-ready “fuck you.” And almost always queerly working to kick the shit out of the gender binary. I tend to think of it as the queer offspring of the Riot grrrl movement of the 90s.