Tag Archives: Gender Questioning

No-person’s land

TW: discussion of suicide

Please Note: The process of writing this blog post has shifted things for me dramatically. For the first time in months, I feel I know my way forward and am feeling quietly elated about this. It goes to show that sometimes, when we shine a light into the shadows it really pays off. Because of this, I decided to go ahead and publish the post, even if it does not reflect how I’m feeling right now. Thanks to all those who stuck by me while I went through this pain.


It’s probably not a secret that I have been struggling with suicidal thoughts. The news about Robin Williams, an icon from my childhood (long before the problematic Mrs Doubtfire, I hasten to add) hit me doubly hard because of this. I find myself asking questions that can’t be answered – Robin, what tipped you over from thinking about it to doing it? I feel sad that someone who meant so much to me growing up did not know his worth.

I see this meme flying around the internet and it resonates with me:

"I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It's not. The worst thing in life is to end up with people that make you feel all alone. Robin Williams.

Let’s be clear, I’m not going to kill myself; this is not a threat, but sometimes it feels just as realistic (or unrealistic) as all my other options. I find myself stuck in a non-life, just keeping going and hoping things will make sense again one day soon.

When I was 18, and first thinking about my queerness, I saw the film Dead Poet’s Society in the cinema. To me, the film was about the impossibility of being different; in fact I would go further and say the film was implicitly about being queer. And it was about a world that would not make room for the queer kid. Where the queer kid kills himself.

The film speaks to a pain that is probably in most of us – just how different am I able to be before the world starts to push back against my difference and refuse to accommodate it?

For me, a lifelong struggle with being transgender is my difference. At that age I was secretly cross-dressing in my father’s old clothes, but I had no notion of the word transgender – I knew in my head I was more boy than girl, but not what that meant. Later, I would make some sort of sense of it with the word “lesbian” – by then a (relatively) socially acceptable term, but not the correct one – my sense of belonging to the lesbian community was about finding other “women like me” – it had little to do with my sexuality, and everything to do with my gender.

But there was such institutional stigma towards transgender folks in the lesbian community that my forward motion completely stalled. Four years ago I found myself meditating on an image of myself hanging onto a branch over a river, refusing to allow myself to be carried any further. I was stuck; I knew I was stuck, but I was terrified of the rapids ahead.

Oh, the irony that it was my partner, out of nowhere, who would come out as transgender ahead of me and make me look like I was jumping on some sort of bandwaggon! My initial fury at his audacity quickly transformed into a very belated admission: “But I’m transgender too!”

There, I’ve admitted it. And yet, I’m still hanging onto that branch, because every time I meditate, every time I get in touch with myself in therapy, my heart whispers the word “transition” to me. I’m not clear what “transition” means to me yet, or how it could be accomplished. Lana Wachowski called it going from invisible to visible; I call it becoming myself, letting myself truly be seen. And such a thing feels utterly impossible to me.

And so I continue my activism, hoping that one day I’ll make the world safe enough to allow me to really be me. Those that get ticked off with my “political” nature need to know this; I’m fighting for my survival, nothing less, because some days all ways forward seem impossible.

I’m still genderqueer; I identify, for want of more adequate words, as “masculine of centre” and male-socialised, but I am not entirely comfortable with calling myself “a man”. I find it impossible to face up to the artificial reality that society constructs; you are either one thing or another. If I am a “man”, then the affinity I feel with many trans women and lesbians becomes meaningless, because “woman” and “man” are presented to us as two mutually exclusive and oppositional groups.

I would rather not be assigned a sex or a gender at all; I would rather not be labelled according to how I look or what’s between my legs, but I have had to accept that society is not going to change if even the most radical of feminists cannot see the problem with categorising people according to their genitals. I don’t feel it’s me that needs to change, but society; and that, my friends, is a somewhat Quixotic position to be taking.

In therapy, I talk about being in no-person’s land; a muddy world of barbed wire and shell-holes from the battle of the sexes. I’m sure there’s fertile earth under all this mud but there aren’t enough people standing their ground here to make this place viable – our very language erases the possibility of gender neutrality. Even if it’s where I belong, it often feels impossible to live in such a place – a land unrecognised, blasted into oblivion.

Transitioning (whatever that entails) means obliterating all that’s left of my cisgender privilege; living my life as a second class citizen, constantly having my legitimacy and sanity called into question. The subtle violence of that is, inevitably, going to take its toll on my mental health; it already is – will I cope, or will I crumble? The catch-22 is obvious: our mental well-being is intimately connected to our levels of social support – as trans people’s social support lessens, our mental health worsens, and it becomes increasingly easy to dismiss our situation as delusional or a mistake that is making us worse, which inevitably means people will become even less supportive of what we are doing, and our mental health will worsen further still . . .

Where I am now seems safer – the comfortable lie, I’m just a genderqueer “woman” and you may as well call me she (because let’s face it, I’ll be old before “they” catches on). You can imagine me as part of this overall group “women”, I can carry on enjoying social inclusion in the only world I know. It’s tempting, even though it’s a lie.

And then I think of Robin Williams again, and that quote above. What if I keep on trying to fit in with this cis-tem that mutilates me more than surgery ever could? What if I compromise myself over and over until it becomes unendurable? If I take the “safer” path, will everything seem okay until one day I snap spectacularly? Will I feel included, but ultimately alone?

I know what I need to do. I need to find the path of my transition, however peculiar that path might be, however lonely. I just don’t know if I have the courage to do it, or where it will take me.

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Life’s a drag

Some folks talk about how trans* issues can lessen when you hit puberty, as if that proves they’re only transient and should not be taken seriously. When I hit my teens, that time when our social selves are at their most powerful and it’s all about fitting in, I did indeed lurch uncomfortably across the gender divide. For a brief time I went all-out with skirts and make-up, even though it felt completely incongruous, even though as a child my gender identity was mostly male. As I’ve said before, it was male socialisation I soaked up as a kid, where female socialisation seemed to slide right off me like I was made of teflon. But then I became a teen and something switched; I became self-conscious in an entirely different way. I tried so damn hard to be a girl, experimenting with skirts and make-up and jewellery. I even enjoyed the girly dress-up in a way, but there was always a conscious act of performance involved . . . dresses and make-up were like drag to me.

It was confusing; because I couldn’t be the boy I’d always been. Hormonal and social changes rendered my true nature all but invisible. Years passed of radical swings between crew cuts and motorbikes and long hippy skirts that tripped me up. My friendships and relationships were with men, and at first I enjoyed being “one of the guys” but the older I got, the more I found myself being pushed into traditional female roles. Not only was I being shoved into a box no woman should be shoved in, I was also finding myself misgendered – the label on the box was “woman” and that was not how I identified.

I started to question my gender in my late twenties with a counsellor who really didn’t get what I was about. Many cisgender people simply don’t allow for the option of being trans* as an explanation for gender questioning – they look at sexuality, mental health, gender roles, feminism, anything but believing in something outside their own experience. My counsellor was no exception – she honed my feminist beliefs and my permission to be non-conformist, for which I’m grateful, but she missed my core identity.

My soul expanded when I met my first trans* woman – let’s call her Karen. The “Karen effect” is why we need trans* people out and proud and fully present in every corner of our world. I met Karen at depth, and I knew her to be a woman. Not in the way she looked or the things she liked or any trite old stereotype; something deeper and instinctive told me she was so much more of a woman than I was.  I can’t tell you what a woman is or what being a woman really means; I have no crude description of femininity or woman-ness for you, but our instinctive selves, our child selves know this stuff that our “civilised” brains obliterate with their tyrannical rigidity.

When I met Karen I realised that if there was a line, and I don’t believe that it’s anything so simple as a line, between man and woman, Karen was nearer to the woman side of it than me; despite her five o’clock shadow, despite her square jaw, or the ill-fit of her vaguely feminine clothes.

Karen blew my mind wide open and suddenly I was learning that we are given a label at birth based on spurious criteria; that many children are born with indeterminate genitalia; that chromosomes don’t always match appearances, and that our brains don’t always neatly match our bodies. I began to wonder if perhaps someone made a mistake in assigning my gender as female; perhaps I was a boy on the inside and that would explain me.

She set a spark in me and then extinguished herself. Persecuted out of existence, Karen disguised herself as Nigel once again, even though pretending to be Nigel had nearly killed her. But as Jeannette Winterson’s mother would say, “Why be happy when you can be normal?” I hope she’s found some way to survive, but I know she cannot thrive living that lie. When I think of Karen’s story, I feel fury at the transphobic fiction that people like her are seeking some sort of gender conformity. Her road was the hardest road there is and the world was not ready for her to take it, even though taking that road and telling her truth would have enriched the world’s story beyond imagining.

My story shrank down then to a more manageable size – coming out as a lesbian (I was already out as bi) was a more socially acceptable half-truth for me. My clever new tag-line was “I am a woman, just a different kind of woman”.  I entered a rich and gender diverse community and it felt a lot like home. And yet we don’t speak enough about gender in the lesbian community – we barely even talk about butch/femme any more, we just say that gender is socially constructed and we are the way we are because of our sexuality. Well, I’m not buying it any more. Gender is a whole heap more complicated than that. We seriously need to open our minds. I’m just beginning to open mine.

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.