I crossdress. Sort of. Certainly I go out sometimes in a compression tank top, with an ace bandage binding my chest, under a men’s shirt and jeans and without earrings or makeup. I’m not trying to pass as a cis man or anything, but given that I’ve been mistaken for one while wearing women’s clothes and a bra, I expect that I sometimes do. I refer to this as “drag,” because it’s presenting as something contrary to my gender assignment, but it honestly doesn’t feel any more like an act than going out in a sexy skirt and top does. I don’t choose one of those options because I’m feeling “more girly” or “more boyish” that day. These are just some of the outfits I have in my wardrobe, and sometimes I’m in the mood for one, and sometimes another.
In sexual dreams and fantasies, It’s about 50/50 whether I have a penis. When I do, the other person in my imagination often doesn’t; when I don’t, the other person usually does. More often than either, I’m observing from outside and honestly couldn’t tell you which participant’s place I’d like to be in. I view porn that way too. (Am I agazing? Maybe gazecurious.) There are sex acts I find equally hot from either participant’s perspective, although some are frustratingly inaccessible to me; I’ve never longed for a bio cock more than while watching someone give exquisite head to my strapon.
None of that is inherently about gender, of course. It’s about presentation, body type, and sexual preferences. There’s nothing wrong with identifying female and presenting male, nor with identifying female and having a penis, but I don’t know that either of those is what I’m doing. Do I have a reason beyond chromosomes to think of myself as female? I’m not a trans man–I’m pretty sure of that–but there are other labels I could use: gender fluid, intergender, third gender, and more. The reality, though, is that none of these descriptions feels quite right to me. Including female.
It’s not that I reject the notion of labels outright. I’m a language nerd; I fully appreciate the utility of having words for things. But there are places I reach for in my own brain when I want to know my name, my preferences, my personality, or other parts of myself, and when I reach into the place where it feels like gender should be, I come up empty. I’m not even sure what having something there would mean. There are people out there who know their own gender so certainly that they make huge, difficult life changes to be perceived as what they are. I sincerely respect that, and intellectually I can understand it, but I don’t really comprehend the strength of that pull towards a point on the gender spectrum. What part of me would be different, if I knew I was male?
For a long time I dodged the question. “I’m female,” I would explain if someone asked, “but I’m not particularly attached to it.” Then, talking with a small group of friends a few weeks ago, I explained in more detail and wondered if I should call myself something else. Someone asked why I even cared what word I used, if I didn’t feel strongly about my gender. I gave the answer I thought of first: I want to communicate well, which means adopting the label that expresses my intent most clearly. But before I was done saying it, I knew it was a true reason but not the real one. I turned my mind from exploring vocabulary to answering my friend’s question. Why did I care so much about the label? Why did the topic agitate me so much?
And the realization came like a wrecking ball. Having a gender isn’t about aligning yourself with a definition; it’s caring about your label. All this time I’d been saying I wasn’t attached to my gender, I was attached so strongly that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I cared so much that whenever it came up, I had to point out I didn’t care. I couldn’t let go of the question because I knew, deep down, that the label I’d been using was wrong for me. The hole I found when I reached for that part of my identity wasn’t an absence. The hole was the answer. In retrospect, the obviousness and ridiculousness of this made me laugh. And then I started to cry.
In the few months that I’ve been actively exploring kink, I’ve spent a lot of time in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing things. There’s a skill to being new–to accepting a period of inability and frustration, and persisting–which I’ve worked consciously to develop. I’m not afraid of talking to a stranger about my sexual desires. I’m not afraid of watching someone stick needles through my arm. But this? The gender thing? This terrifies me. I can stay calm while examining my core beliefs, needs, and expectations, because even the most important of those are just branches on the tree of me. I had thought gender was just another branch; it turned out that I was shaking the tree by its roots. Finding the right word wasn’t about explaining some things that I do. It was about knowing what I am. I had no precedent for changing my self-perception on that fundamental a level. I was really, honestly frightened.
In Good Company
But I wasn’t alone. One friend of mine told me recently about his similar feelings: Our culture models gender as a line, he explained, with male at one end and female as the other. When he wants to move away from male, people perceive him as moving towards female, but that’s not what he means to do at all. What he wants is to move orthogonally to the line itself. Another friend, Ian, wrote in a Fetlife post about his identity:
I am male. Sort of. Kinda. Mostly? While I am certainly male-bodied and identify most clearly as being male [...] the act of dressing up isn’t arousing, but rather comforting. Sometimes I just feel more girly than others, and I have at this point built a number of feminine aspects into how I present myself [...] I am not transsexual then, simply genderqueer, though not so strongly that I feel comfortable making it my main gender identity … yet.
Please can you just let Storm discover for him/herself what s(he) wants to be?!
A Swedish toddler whom the press call “Pop” hasn’t been assigned a gender either. Pop’s parents’ reasoning:
We want Pop to grow up more freely and avoid being forced into a specific gender mould from the outset. It’s cruel to bring a child into the world with a blue or pink stamp on their forehead.
Hanne Blank’s fantastic keynote at BECAUSE 2002 exhorts us to not settle for static labels. The talk is about bisexuality, but her language here is broad:
What I am here to do is to ask you to consider this: that having an identity which is constantly the subject of negotiation is a good thing, that not resting, not having a fixed dwelling place, keeps our queerness — and all queerness — vital and alive. I am here to ask you to consider that the cultural consolidation of identity limits one’s ability to become liberated from a culture whose practice is to only recognize consolidated, group identities. Consider for a moment that there are ways to establish identity and community without sacrificing mobility, flexibility, change, and challenge.
All this time, I’ve been afraid of jerking people around–asking of them the difficult task of changing their definition of me, and then having to do it all over again later because it didn’t turn out to be the right label after all. But maybe it’s not about being “right.” Maybe it’s about describing the place where I am now, about being a visible example of the complexity of gender experience. I resisted the idea of finding or making a different word for myself because I didn’t want to be seen as sophomoric, rejecting all previous thought on the subject so I could declare myself a unique snowflake. But I do get to choose what I am, and I am unique. So is everybody else! What if we started acknowledging that?
Blank suggests the word “sovereign” to describe a dynamic and self-directed identity. While that may be the true nature of the thing, it doesn’t satisfy my desire for clarity. The etymological best fit for me is, I think, “agender.” While it falls under the umbrella of genderqueer, it doesn’t mean between genders, nor alternating; it’s not a third gender or a mix. It just means “not”–a hole–a gap in self-concept at the place where I found one in mine. It’s not a fixed point for me to align to, it’s a description of what I already am. And that, for once, feels right.
I can tell it’s a good label because it changes almost nothing. I’ll keep wearing men’s and women’s clothes, often together, and daydreaming about bits I do and don’t have. On forms with only two choices, I’ll shrug and check “female,” or abstain. Where gender is a text field, I will reward that with a more thoughtful answer. And on my own blog, where I can answer in paragraphs if I want to, I have no need to compromise. My introduction currently describes me as “female. Mostly,” and it’s wrong. I’m not mostly female; I’m a feminine sort of agender. When I publish this post, I’ll update that text to say so.
I’m nervous about changing my label, and nervous about sharing so much. But if I feel exposed–uprooted–that’s just the move out of my planter box. Outside, I’ll have richer soil … and a lot more room to grow.
There’s now a followup to this, Post-Transplant, describing my first six weeks with a new gender label.