I feel bad about my sex. I really do. If you saw me, you probably wouldn’t guess it.
Because words are tricky and malleable, I’ll clarify: I’m talking about the sex that was assigned to me as a baby. In January of 1983, a doctor eased me out of an incision in my mother’s lower abdomen, saw a tiny vulva, and told everyone, “It’s a girl!”
I never questioned that assignment, but I’ve never felt great about it either. I remember knowing as a child that I was definitely not a boy. I felt that. But I didn’t feel “girl” in the same way. Or at all. I was a girl by default, because it was the only other option.
My stomach still plummets whenever I fill out a form and there are two checkboxes: Male; Female.
“Well,” reasons my mind, “certainly not Male.”
So I check the Female box, and then I feel weird and confused and ashamed and like maybe I’ve just lied a little bit on this official-looking form, and I have to remind myself that they’re asking about my body. I think.
(Then I feel weird and confused and ashamed all over again. And what does my gender marker have to do with the dentist fixing my broken filling?)
My body looks how society thinks a girl’s body—no, wait, sorry, a woman’s body—looks. I hear “excuse me, ma’am” or “pardon me, miss” in the grocery store if I happen to be standing in front of the cereal another shopper wants. It always takes me a moment to realize who the “ma’am” is supposed to be. But no one has ever called me “sir,” even when I’m dressed in my boxiest shirt and baggiest jeans.
As fraught a needle as this is for me to thread, I assume this means I look feminine. I wouldn’t call myself “pretty”—and that’s not false modesty or dysphoria talking. I’m at a place with my recovery from eating disorders where what serves me best, vis-a-vis my appearance, is neutrality: This is my face. These are my shoulders. This is my chest. And so on.
Still, friends I trust have called me beautiful (and I’m practicing believing the words of people I trust), and I’m “more or less woman-shaped,” to quote Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But none of that really matches my insides. I don’t experience myself as a woman.
My Gender Mindfuck
When I was in high school, I found a copy of My Gender Workbook by Kate Bornstein in the Women’s Studies section of Dutton’s Brentwood Books. I don’t know if I knew the word “transgender” before reading that book, but I fell instantly head-over-heels in love with Bornstein’s queer lexicon and cheeky quizzes.
The book’s theory seemed to boil down to: Don’t feel like you totally match with the sex you were assigned at birth? Congratulations, you’re transgender!
I was elated to learn words and theories that aligned with my experience. But Bornstein also talks about gender’s connection to power in society, and that scared the hell out of me. I wasn’t ready to go down such a twisty road. For one thing, I already felt pretty powerless. And while I had this book to present gender/queerness as a beautiful, fluid spectrum, all the transgender narratives I had access to seemed rooted in binary gender. This was around the time that Boys Don’t Cry came out; I decided that people like Brandon Teena were actually transgender. I wasn’t exactly the “wrong” sex, or “a man trapped in a woman’s body.” I seemed to oscillate between wanting to be perceived as female and feeling like a fraud for presenting as female. As far as I could tell, I was just really bad at being a woman.
For one thing, I was attracted to women.
A Loss for Words
A few months before reading Bornstein’s book, I came out as having “a crush on a girl in my English class.” That statement wasn’t the whole truth. There was a girl, with whom I had fifth-period English, and who occupied a very special high-school-crush pedestal in my mind. But I’d internalized enough homophobia to be deeply ashamed of this crush—and of my tendency to fall in love with female celebrities and online penpals. I hadn’t thought very much about my sexuality beyond that, other than to feel certain that it was bad and wrong and further evidence of my failure as a human being.
I couldn’t tell the whole truth about my sexual orientation or identity because I didn’t know the whole truth. My therapist brought up my sexual orientation to me; not the other way around. She then pressured me to come out to my parents. At 16, I was still in the habit of deferring to authority figures for the truth in all matters, including matters of my identity. My parents were paying this person; that only reinforced her authority.
This therapist had used the word “lesbian” in our session, but I couldn’t bring myself to say that out loud. I’d been drawn to women for as long as I could remember, but I’d never known how to talk about that or had words that made sense to me. But suddenly, I felt like I had to talk about it.
In addition to my self-erasing deference to authority, I was terrified of keeping secrets. Somehow, even my own mind didn’t feel private or safe. I would’ve liked to keep my crush (and my process) to myself, but I felt like I had to save myself from the inevitable humiliation when someone other than this therapist figured out my whole not-a-real-[straight]-girl situation.
From there, I muddled through four years of feeling like a total imposter everywhere, LGBT spaces included. Being openly “gay” was slightly better (I hadn’t come home to “queer” yet), but I still felt like a fraud. “Real” [cis] womanhood continued to elude me, and I was always terrified of being found out, even though I wasn’t sure what that would look like.
I told exactly one person about my perceived sex failure. I explained that even when I made myself as feminine as I could, I still didn’t feel like a woman, and I was scared that someone would find out that I wasn’t “a real girl.” The scornful dismissal by someone who should have known better still hurts: “What?! What are you talking about?! Of course you’re a real girl!”
I’d all but forgotten about My Gender Workbook. I didn’t have the phrase “non-binary transgender” in my vocabulary. Maybe I was just crazy for feeling this way, and if I got better at looking and acting “like a girl,” I’d start to feel like one.
My Gender Mindfuck, Revisited
I decided that all this identity turmoil was just a product of my inherent brokenness. I made it my mission to redeem myself and made a conscious, deliberate effort to be “normal.” Normalness, I promised myself, would lead to happiness. After all, my happiest (seeming) friends and acquaintances were Christian, feminine girls with boyfriends.
I’d grown up with the belief that marriage equaled success, and motherhood was the key to ultimate bliss. Jesus and a husband and a baby or two would be my tickets out of self-hatred and misery! They would heal my brokenness, resulting in a magical transformation of my very being, and I would finally be happy and whole!
Of course, that’s not what happened. I went from being a depressed, fearful, self-erasing person to being a depressed, fearful, self-erasing person with a husband, two children, and several eating disorders.
That’s the shortest possible version of a years-long story. There were certainly ups to go the with the downs. But over those months and years, I never stopped feeling at odds with my body and sexuality. (How could I? Nothing makes a person aware of the gender industrial complex quite like enduring a wedding and having babies.)
Fortunately, I also never lost an affinity for queer and trans narratives. Even when I avoided them, they often found me in small, magical ways. Finally, after a decade of holding myself hostage, I turned 30 and started to open back up to myself—somewhat reluctantly at first. I acknowledged my attraction to a wide variety of genders and gender presentations. I posted bits of my true self on social media and my first blog, usually to coincide with National Coming Out Day. I took my little brood to the Family Pride Picnic in Seattle. I engaged with more art, music, and storytelling that resonated with my “misfit” aspects. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to seek out the community and friends I longed for.
As the Kids Say
In summer of 2017, I met Kristina Turner through a mutual friend. Kristina and I bonded over a wide variety of topics, but shortly after we were introduced, it came up that Kristina’s middle child, Ori, is intersex. I was immediately struck by the fierce kindness with which Kristina has advocated for Ori, and prioritized the health of her young family.
This July, Ori and Kristina gave a TEDx talk called “Intersex is Awesome.” I was blown away, watching a grade-schooler stand onstage speak joyfully to an audience about being intersex, identifying as nonbinary, and using they/them pronouns. Ori is a born performer, and their inner light is dazzling. Watching this beautiful little soul shine through a hot pink blazer and “Too Cute to Be Binary” t-shirt lit my queer heart up. I thought, “How cool. I wish I could do that.”
I wish I had the confidence to embrace my identity with that kind of ease, humor, and style.
My true identity: not the box I think I “should” check.
I told Kristina about how affected I was by Ori’s self-knowledge and tremendous confidence in their identity. She smiled, and told me that Ori has always been proudly, vocally themselves. She described an incident where someone at a queer event had claimed that Ori couldn’t identify as trans, and Ori had explained to this person (who was much older than themselves) that actually, because they do not identify with the sex assigned to them at birth, they fit under the trans umbrella.
I recalled my insecure 16-year-old self, reading Kate Bornstein, seeing my identity reflected in the words and then doubling back. I’d told myself that I had no right to certain labels because there were other people in the world who were “more valid” than I was. But I would never have denied someone else a label that resonated with them.
And just like that, a fifth-grader’s joy, clarity, and confidence in themselves slammed me up against my 35-year-old internalized queer- and transphobia.
On Words, Again
In one of those “the perfect thing at the perfect time” serendipitous moments, I finally decided to listen to the final episode of Flex Your Heart Radio, which had been sitting in my podcast app forever. Reflections on identity were already kicking around in my mind as I plugged in my headphones. When journalist Molly Woodstock started outlining their gender discovery process, I experienced the audio equivalent of looking in a mirror. Molly described thoughts and fears that I had had for decades: fear of being seen as “extra” for lack of a better word, or as an attention-seeker. (“I hate attention!” Molly says; “Hell yes!” I replied out loud, alone in my car.)
In terms of embracing their identity, Molly says:
“Finally I realized that…I was a nonbinary person. If you believe that nonbinary people exist, which they do, then I am one. And so my choice wasn’t whether to be nonbinary or to be a woman; my choice was whether to live authentically as a nonbinary person, or ignore the fact that I was nonbinary and pretend that I was a cis woman.”
That shook the foundation of my denial with validation and heartache. I felt like I’d been stabbed with the sharp clarity of truth: I am so afraid of living a genderqueer life that I’ve opted instead to live as a gender failure. I would rather exist as a never-good-enough cis woman than a full and complete nonbinary femme.
After weeks of grappling with words and language, talking to friends, reading, writing, listening to interviews (Molly’s Gender Reveal podcast is an absolute treasure), and working on coming to terms with terms—how they apply to me, how they don’t apply to me, what I like about them, what I don’t—I have the deep, profound sense that…I don’t know.
I don’t have a word or words I love—beyond queer. I don’t feel connected to any particular pronouns. (Many folks describe spending time in trans- and nonbinary-normative spaces, hearing others use they/them/theirs, and feeling a deep sense of relief or belonging.) Thinking of myself as a “they” doesn’t feel especially meaningful or right. But recently I referred to myself in the third person as “she,” and that seemed a little wrong. Would “they” have felt more correct? I don’t know.
When I talked through all of this with my closest friends, every one of them was lovely, understanding, and kind. Several asked, unprompted, if I wanted them to use “they/them” pronouns for me. I told them I didn’t know.
That may be what all of this boils down to, more than 2,000 words later: I don’t know.
Knowing is wonderful, but not knowing is also fine. It’s okay to be 11 and know. It’s okay to be 16 and know but not know. It’s okay to be 35 and not know. And so on.
Today, I feel like I’m trying on a new-but-familiar nonbinary femininity that has little to do with the sex I was assigned at birth or the shape of my adult body. If folks use they/them pronouns for me, that’s fine; she/her pronouns are also fine.
I still feel some internal(ized) pressure to choose a side, pick a label, check a box—“It’s a girl!” But I also feel tender and tired and cautious with words, after almost twenty years of anxiously juggling terms and identities, trying to form myself into shapes I was never meant to be.
I don’t know exactly how I identify. I just know it doesn’t fit neatly in a checkbox.