1. A relief
When I came out as queer at the end of my senior year of high school, amid the panic, excitement, and confusion there were moments of relief. I felt relieved that I had finally found words for something that had long been pushed down. Knowing my sexuality and allowing myself to even think, I’m gay, felt like arriving somewhere that I hadn’t even let myself know I was traveling to.
But that was a complicated relief that came with much more fear and dissonance. I also felt relief in the lifting of a long-overdue pressure. I thought, I don’t have to be feminine anymore.
Often I reasoned with the limited knowledge I had of gay people. Gay women are more masculine, I thought. They’re not expected to be feminine, so I don’t have to be as feminine anymore either. Although I let myself off the hook to be feminine mentally, it wouldn’t be until a couple of years later that it would actually come into practice.
Coming out to myself, and then eventually to others, was the first time I really felt able to think about my gender. Before then, all was settled. I fit somewhere within the scope of “woman” and as long as I stayed there, all would be okay. However hostile I found the need to stay within “woman,” it didn’t matter. I was a girl and that wasn’t going to change. But those first 18 years while I wasn’t questioning whether or not I was a girl, I was still constantly bumping up against the perceived bounds of my gender, and feeling like it never quite fit.
In the face of femininity I felt too broad-shouldered, too athletic, too prone to get dirty. I was too clumsy, my feet were too big, and my voice too low. My face didn’t feel dainty; I had a strong jaw and a hard nose. I liked wrestling and beating boys in arm wrestles. My first tooth was punched out by a friend of mine, and when I was really young I liked to hike shirtless. I hated the term tomboy and because of my masculine tendencies, I felt unattractive to the boys I had crushes on.
The transition from elementary school to middle school and then to high school felt like a continual reigning in of my large and obtrusive personality. I learned to talk less in class, to stop challenging people to physical tests, to be shy about my talents along with learning when to lower my voice. The intensely conformist culture of suburban middle school was beating the typical concept of femininity into me. I learned to feel good when I looked like other girls. I wore crop tops and leggings, bent over with my hands on my knees in photos, used mascara, bought brand-name apparel, and wore tight dresses. Even with the hours of subconscious observation and the many places where I was doing the right thing, I still didn’t feel like I fit.
Shopping, which always took place at the Natick Mall with my mother, was a horror. I was embarrassed to be in any stores and when looking around I couldn’t seem to find anything I liked. The truth was I didn’t actually like anything, because I wasn’t actually shopping for what I was interested in wearing. Dressing myself was about finding a balance of femininity that felt safe and somewhat comfortable.
When I got to high school I started to let go of some of my learned femininity. I wanted to find a pocket within womanhood where I wouldn’t feel quite so awkward in my own body. Femininity had begun to feel like something pointy, something sharp and intrusive. It pricked me in all of the places I felt most self-conscious. It was unachievable, yet, I felt condemned to live within it forever.
Somewhere in my deep-rooted repression of my queerness was the fear that if I gave in to wanting to dress masculinely, I would seem gay. In my head seeming gay was to be avoided at all costs. But it wasn’t long before seeming and looking gay made me feel the best I’d ever felt.
Just weeks after I’d come out to my first friend, I found myself wrapped up in the beginnings of a relationship with a girl. On our first date, I found a small white flower and pulled it off a tree. I stood, facing her, and put it nervously behind her ear. We walked and set up a blanket on the top of a small hill. I was petrified, but everything also felt familiar. I thought, maybe romance is a genderless language.
That thought was partially right. Part of the fear of beginning to date a woman was that the script that had been ingrained in me my entire life was suddenly useless. Moments after I was born I was already being taught how to perform my gender. Not too many years after that I was learning the ways in which love works between a man and a woman. Those same messages, the script of the way men and women act around each other, influenced my entire middle school and high school experience as I crushed over and pursued relationships with boys.
It was a dynamic I felt I had gotten good at. I liked to feel precious and sweet as well as adored by men. I knew how to slip under a boy’s arm and allow his large body to cover over mine. My mind told my body to move and my hands would follow. I would bring a delicate hand up to a hard chest, lean my head, smile gently. There were specific positions to stand in and proper clothing to wear. The script was abundantly accessible. It dominated every form of media; almost every book, tv show, or movie taught me the right ways to act.
And then, fawning over my first girlfriend, all of that was gone. In its place was empty space. A floor that stretched forward with no end. There was clarity in the emptiness, and then I found something else. In the place of a script, there was creation.
I felt myself beginning to create a romance that didn’t exist on tv – the romance between two girls. There was no where to go wrong because there was no threat of stepping outside of any boundaries. Everything I did felt new, uncharted. It existed in a space I didn’t yet understand and I worked excitedly to carve it out.
At the time I felt like I could choose if I wanted to be the boy or the girl in any given situation. Eventually, rather than getting to choose between being the boy or the girl, I learned to abandon the concept of roles altogether. In those moments, I started to get my first glimpse at what it’s like to feel genderless. But that would take a couple more years to master.
4. The split
Soon after moving to college, I was faced with another anomaly that my discovery of my sexuality posed for my gender. I identified as bisexual and I wanted to pursue both men and women. Whenever I got dressed to go out I felt like I had to make a definitive choice; did I want to dress for men, or for women? Appealing to one gender or another came with an entirely different code of clothing. I was split between two incompatible lifestyles. And in the middle, there was bisexuality, which had no real culture in itself.
Through countless conversations trying to explain the reality of my bisexuality to my parents, I found myself trying to move further and further away from any sort of gendered lens.
“It shouldn’t even be about gender from the beginning,” I’d say. “It should just be about who you connect with, who you’re attracted to. Why does that always have to fit within a category of gender?”
At college I was still constantly bumping up against the edges of my womanhood. However, now instead of purely wrestling with femininity, every bump of my gender felt like a place where I was hitting against my queerness. In the process of trying to figure out how I wanted to be queer, I was also redefining my womanhood.
At the end of the year, I fell in love. That was when I truly began to feel it. As we grew closer, I could feel us blending together. We grew an increasing intimacy and privacy, and with it we moved further and further into a world of our own. I have long believed that a relationship exists in the space between two people. Not one perception or the other, but a reality that two people build between themselves. With the people I was closest to, this reality felt more fully fleshed out; it was full of things and feelings, memories and music.
As I started to discovered what love was and what it felt like, the reality we created fell outside the prescribed functionings of the world. When we were together sometimes I would get so caught up in a completely unfiltered and open state of mind that I would forget what it even meant to be a socialized person. I felt presently together with her, aside from my identity and the way I existed to in the outside world.
Lying in bed one night I told her, “Sometimes when I’m with you I feel genderless.”
And there it was, lying open and untouched by my ingrained femininity. I was simply who I was and who I was to her. There were no roles in our relationship, no dynamics of masculine and feminine power. It is a feeling of simplicity. It is freeing. And it is rare, dipped into when the connection between me and another person prevails beyond our identities as people in the world.