I just read through this: http://itspronouncedmetrosexual.com/2011/11/list-of-cisgender-privileges/
and I can’t help thinking about my own gender identity and expression. Not so much now as when I was growing up. Let me start off by saying that I am biologically female and have always identified as such. I know that I have not suffered the stigmas and hardships that non-cis people face every day. I know that I am very fortunate. I intend for this post to be more a reflection of how gender expression has affected my life than for it to be any kind of “I know how non-cis folks must feel” post. Because I am very lucky. This is more about middle school being a hard time for me than about gender identity being a constant source of judgement and confusion in my life. No offense is meant to anyone who for any reason might ever read this.
Okay, so. When I was in middle school, I often got mistaken for a boy. I never fully understood why. It’s true that I’ve always been tall, but middle school girls tend to be taller than middle school boys. I had noticeable breasts by 7th grade. My hair was never shorter than chin-length. I didn’t wear dresses a lot, but I often wore form-fitting shirts in colors that most people considered to be “feminine.” I mean, look, I was a weird kid. I wasn’t a pretty middle schooler. My mom didn’t want me to get my eyebrows done or wear makeup or spend a lot of money on clothes. I didn’t know how to make myself look the way society told me I should look. I had a unibrow. Here are instances that I remember where my gender was misinterpreted or called into question:
1) In 7th grade, we had a substitute in math class. He was going over answers to our homework. I raised my hand to give an answer, and he checked the seating chart to find my name. He immediately said, “Are you guys switching seats on me? Because that doesn’t look like a ‘(my obviously female name)’ to me!” I was mortified. I couldn’t fully wrap my head around what had happened and what I had done to have failed to be…me. How he was allowed to decide that I didn’t look like me. The rest of the class quickly jumped in to assure him that I was, in fact, “(my name),” and he let me answer the question. No apology. If that happened to me now, I would have lectured him and left the room. I cannot stand adults who act like it’s okay to embarrass children for any reason. This incident has always stuck with me. Even now, about ten years later, if people are looking at me, I’m never sure if I should think they’re checking me out or that they’re trying to figure out my gender.
2) In 8th grade, we had another substitute in another math class. I handed in an assignment and he said, “Thank you, sir.” I didn’t say anything. I sat down and said to my friend, “I think he just called me ‘sir’.” “What? That doesn’t make sense. Look at what you’re wearing!” I was wearing a tight-fitting pinkish purpleish shirt. I felt very self-conscious for the rest of the day.
3) Later that year, a couple other classmates and I went to compete in a regional science fair. These two boys, who were younger than us, kept following me around and harassing me. “Are you a boy-girl?” one asked. “No, she’s a girl-girl,” a classmate who I wasn’t very close with responded. (I was so grateful to her for that. The confirmation that everyone in our class wasn’t calling me a boy behind my back was just what I needed.) We were wearing name tags, so they knew my name. They kept calling to me, making jokes about being in love with me. They did this once in front of one of their mothers. She smiled and made some kind of comment about me being out of their league. She did not understand that they were insulting me.
These incidents have had lasting impact on me. I used to have dreams that I would suddenly discover that I had a tiny penis in addition to my vagina that I’d never noticed. Every time I’ve learned about any kind of gender/sex irregularity, I look it up on the internet to see if it’s something that I might have. I have a hormonal imbalance that causes me to grow thicker/darker facial and body hair that began to manifest itself in high school. It is very difficult to be a girl with facial hair. Even when it’s “taken care of”, I’m terrified that someone will know. Bearded women are made fun of on TV programs. A friend made a joke about me having facial hair once, and didn’t understand why I got so mad until I finally calmed down enough to explain it to him. (He of course had no idea that I had more hair than I was supposed to and apologized and we all grew from the experience but it was still quite painful for me.) I feel like I constantly have to prove to people that I am a girl. I was talking recently to a guy I’m interested in about shaving legs, and about how I like shaving my legs but I don’t like feeling like I HAVE to shave my legs. He told me to just stop doing it for a while. I realized that I can’t. I never want to do anything that might bring my gender into question. This, of course, sounds completely irrational to me, but it’s been built into me for so long. I’m terrified that I might accidentally not be a girl.
So, back to the links I posted at the beginning. I was thinking about gender identity and expression and wondering how to best phrase my experiences. Does gender expression have to be conscious? I identify as female. I thought I was expressing myself as female. I guess, really, it never occurred to me at that age that there was a way for me to be a girl but not to appear as a girl.
(Sidebar: I always have trouble with this, because I hate words like “masculine” and “feminine” and I just want to be like, EVERYONE DO WHATEVER THEY WANT AND DON’T WORRY ABOUT LABELING IT, but I know that that’s not how it works and that those words are a big part of many people’s identity and sense of self, so forgive me if I seem like I’m kinda going back and forth here.)
So, in conclusion: middle school sucks. If it’s possible for me to be biologically female, think of myself as a girl, and still get bullied for not being “enough” of a girl, I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for someone who doesn’t have the same advantages I do. I wish I could make more people understand that they don’t get to decide what it means for me to be me, or for anyone else to be themselves. I work at a camp with 8-12 year olds right now, and I’m constantly trying to make them understand this. Expressions like, “Boys will be boys,” “Man up!”, “Real men do/don’t ____,” and “Stop being such a girl!” are such a bigger part of their lexicon than I realized. It’s frustrating.