Coming out of yet another closet – from lesbian to genderqueer

It’s time I came out of the closet, again. Just like I’ve been told many a time while arguing with trans excluding radfems online . . . I’m not really a woman.

Let me explain . . . I don’t know what my chromosomal arrangements are, I imagine few people do for sure. I do know mother nature gave me breasts and periods, so presumably ovaries and a uterus although nobody’s ever gone in and taken a look. I don’t have a dick. I don’t look like a dude. But right from the start I was socialised more male than female, and I believe this is about how I looked at and experienced the world . . . my brain (or heart, or soul) led me down roads intended for males to walk.

An early photo has me standing in a flat cap and braces and I look like a cute little 4-year-old boy. My sister liked dolls and make-up; I liked climbing trees and getting mucky – but what does that really mean? Liking ungirly things shouldn’t make anyone, including me, question my woman-ness. But it’s deeper than that – something pretty fixed in me made me look to males rather than females for my social cues. Something more than just the prevalence of male role models and the invisibility of female icons; beyond social construction, beyond feminist ideas, beyond sexuality; something I’m going to daringly call an innate gender identity.

How we “do” gender is made up by society as it goes along, as evidenced by the fact pink was a boy’s colour not so very long ago. But something inside us makes us follow the lead of whichever gender our identity points us toward. We’re social animals, designed to “download” whatever environment we’re born into, and it’s becoming increasingly clear we naturally tune in to gendered information. The possibilities for how we tune in – how our unique selves meet the gendered world – are endless, but can be broadly (if a little inaccurately) chopped up into male, female, both or neither, and these instincts may not always match our bodies.  It’s unique for each of us, and no simple binary explanations quite cut it. Some scientists may say it’s hormones in utero shaping our brains, but I don’t need a science experiment to tell me who I am. I know who I am, and that should be enough.

I’ve wanted to wear trousers, play with cars and climb trees since I could walk. It has nothing to do with me being a feminist. It has nothing to do with me wanting to subvert the stereotypical gender roles in society. It has nothing to do with my sexuality, which is about who I am attracted to, not who I am. Yes, I’m attracted to women, but contrary to what some anti-trans folks might say, that does not settle the issue of gender identity, although for a long time I tried to believe it did, and having come out of one closet I built myself another. How can anyone possibly say that as a kid I liked to play with tools and shoot bows and arrows because I’m a lesbian? It doesn’t make any sense. I was drawn to boys’ things and boy’s social rules because part of me thought I was a boy, it really is that simple.

But hang on, we feminists know gender is socially constructed, right? All that stuff about “boy’s toys” and “girl’s toys” is sexist rubbish that needs challenging. The arguments are pretty persuasive, and I agree with them. Check out books like Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and suddenly it becomes clear that all qualities and behaviours we think of as innately male or female are easily implanted in human children’s uniquely “plastic”, adaptable and socially-orientated brains.

But if social construction is so powerful, why did it miss me completely? How did I escape such a dominant force? It wasn’t my feminist leanings, at the age of three, that made me throw my sister’s dolls across the room in disgust. Some people say my being a lesbian explains it – but how, exactly, does that work? Isn’t that just a convenient blurring of gender and sexuality? What made me reach for trousers or throw away the make-up my auntie kept insisting on buying me? What made me resist the powerful conditioning that was happening to all the girls around me? Could I perhaps have an ineffable quality that is drawn to boy’s things and boy’s social rules?

Ok, but once again, we know gender is socially constructed, right? Well what if we lived in a society where it was socially constructed that boys always wear bananas on their heads? I truly believe by the age of three I would have had the intense desire to wear bananas on my head. Something inside of me reached into the social world and looked for my cues from males instead of females. It wouldn’t have mattered what the boys were doing, I wanted to do it too. It has nothing to do with what I actually did – I wasn’t born with an innate desire to shout, show off my strength and torture my sister’s barbies, it was simply that boys did that kind of stuff and I was programmed to copy them. If boys wore blue lipstick and played hopscotch I would have wanted to wear blue lipstick and play hopscotch. As it was, I found myself wanting to open doors for women and win at arm wrestling. I absorbed a million social messages that weren’t intended for me and an awful lot of the messages I was “supposed” to receive simply bounced off me, to the exasperation of my female relatives.

If we had lived in a century where, as in nature, boys dressed for display and women for camouflage, maybe I would have been sequinned and feathered and rainbow from head to toe. I had boyish tendencies, and whatever society chose boyish to mean, I think that is what I would have wanted to be. And I just want to make an important distinction – I don’t think I ever said I was a boy, the messages for me were not quite that strongly implanted. But if I had, I sincerely hope (although I doubt) that my parents would have respected this, because children are perfectly capable of knowing themselves. If I can feel this way, I have no problem believing others feel it more strongly, and can only thrive living as their true gender.

But people are not left to figure out their own realities; society moves in and interprets their reality for them. Layers of complex socialisation become part of our gender stories and we can never separate nature and nurture, nor is there any value in trying. As a child, I was given the label “tomboy”, as if this resolved everything neatly. It didn’t, but for a while I was satisfied with that label. Later, I hit on “lesbian” and it more or less fit, but inherent in that word is the assumption that I’m a woman, and that my difference has nothing to do with gender. But I’m not a woman. I’m not entirely a man, either, as it happens; I don’t have any plan to transition, although I fully support those who do. But I’m tired, so tired of my gender being missed, I’m tired of passing for cisgender, even though it has many privileges. There’s probably nothing I can do about it but open my mouth and say how I feel, although coming out to a community that is so scared and confused about trans* issues is more than a little frightening.

Labels never quite manage to live up to the human need to express and describe, but if you want a label for me, for the moment I’ll settle for genderqueer.

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17 thoughts on “Coming out of yet another closet – from lesbian to genderqueer

  1. Jet Black

    I just want to let you know that you have my support Sandy… and that this post is VERY well-written! I’m a damn sight more at ease with trans issues than I ever was, but your writing really helped me understand a bit more. Thank you! x

    Reply
  2. Rachel May

    Very well put. I can feel myself slipping in to the role created here, with some obvious role and gender reversals.
    I particularly like your bit about not “needing a science experiment to tell you who you are…”
    It has taken me years to get to a point like that, the simple acceptance of being who you are and well if anybody else doesn’t like it, tough!
    Best of luck with the blog

    Reply
  3. Carlos

    Thank you for writing this. I relate so much. I’ve never felt comfortable or sane presenting as one gender or another, and I often feel like a person with a femme soul who expresses ‘male’ or ‘butch’ qualities, sometimes out of defense, and sometimes because it just feels right for me.

    Reply
  4. Katie

    This is a wonderful explanation of what it is to be genderqueer and that it doesn’t necessarily mean anything at all about sexual orientation. Go you!

    Reply
  5. Lauren G

    I like the article. I always figured that children are not born knowing social cues, but are born knowing “same” and “different”. At 3 years old, I did not know about gender but I knew that I was the same as the girls next door and different from the boys up the street.

    Then the cultural influences start coming in. I was the same as the people that played “house” and different from the boys that played ball.

    Reply
  6. Frank

    Thank you so much for writing this! Especially since, not needing to change your body, you may have had some choice of whether to keep quiet about your gender. Well written gender-aware articles like this are essential to clearing the path for those of all genders who are having difficulty with getting their gender accepted, involving much suffering, and even death in some instances.

    I’m trans queer masculine, assigned female at birth (and incidentally pansexual, which has no influence whatsoever on my gender expression). Whilst it has been hugely important for me personally to change my body, and I am more comfortable with people assuming I’m male rather than female, the pervasive assumption of binary gender and associated stereotyping still grates with me, and I feel it is very important to challenge it.

    Thank you for joining the fight, and I wish you success, acceptance and happiness.

    Reply
    1. Sandy Hope Post author

      Frank, thank you so much for your comment. I had a moment earlier of asking myself “why am I doing this? Why can’t I just keep quiet about how I feel and not rock the boat?” Well, you just answered that question – because too many people are keeping quiet. I can’t tell you how many people have read my blog and said (privately) that this is just how they feel. It’s a little terrifying to speak up, but I really couldn’t hold it in any more . . .

      Reply
  7. Jonathan

    Labels never quite manage to live up to the human need to express and describe, but if you want a label for me, for the moment I’ll settle for genderqueer.

    You’ve summed it up for me there 🙂

    Great blog btw.

    Reply
  8. Pingback: What does Gender Identity feel like? | LGBTWTF

  9. Beige

    I probably first saw this about a year ago, a bit before I really came out as a gender nonconformist, and it really did a lot to help me understand myself. I’m basically comfortable with an *identity* as male as assigned at birth but it’s always been clear, and has become clearer still recently, that my sense of gender expression, my natural sense of who my role models are supposed to be, who I’m supposed to try to be like, who around me serve as models in my society as being people ‘like me’ in some way, are all women. I think especially when I was very young I just naturally picked up all sorts of feminine stuff. I sometimes wonder how much more if I’d had a sister instead of a brother!

    Reply
    1. Sam Hope Post author

      Oh, that’s such a helpful realisation, when you see that it isn’t just about who you are, but about who you are naturally influenced by!

      Reply
  10. Evan

    Never have I read something before and it was as if it came straight from my own thoughts. I completely relate to your words and I want to thank you for helping to solidify another step in this newfound journey. I appreciate you putting this out there! Just wish I could’ve read it sooner 🙂
    Best Wishes,
    E

    Reply

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