A Genderqueer Childhood
When I tell people that I’m nonbinary, often they ask me how long I’ve known. They wonder if my narrative is similar to that of the typical transgender archetype of being aware of one’s gender from a young age.
The truth is, I didn’t know I was nonbinary as a child. I didn’t know the difference between gender and assigned sex for most of my life.
I’d always felt that I didn’t have a gender in my mind, or that I was sort of “both a boy and a girl”. But because I was taught that gender and sex were synonymous, I genuinely believed that everyone else felt this way too. That everyone was mentally the same, and whether you were a “boy” or a “girl” just depended on whether you got stuck with an innie or an outie. In many ways I detested and fought against female gender roles from a young age, but also I found the idea of being transgender (as little exposure to it as I had) to be baffling. Being a girl sucked, but being a boy seemed like it would also suck, so why would someone bother “switching”? It seemed like a lot of effort to swap out one set of chains for another. I remember in a conversation I had with my friend in 3rd grade, one of them had brought up the topic of people switching genders. We discussed it with the sort of naivety and benevolent fascination only found in young children, and one of my friends said to me, “Wouldn’t it be terrible to feel like you were trapped in the wrong body?”
I only remember thinking, what body isn’t trapping? I don’t particularly like being a girl, but if I woke up tomorrow as a boy it wouldn’t be any better or worse.
Gender was always very confusing to me. My inability to differentiate genders beyond physical appearance made it very difficult to understand what behaviors were considered “gender-appropriate”. And on the frequent occasions when I would overstep my apparent gender boundaries and someone would attempt to set me back in line, I was outraged. I’d been wrestling shirtless with my brother since before I could remember, so why at the age of 7 was I suddenly expected to be fully clothed at all times? I saw my male friends and cousins continue to romp and scrap like we used to, except now I was on the outside, and this distance continued to grow as I got older. Don’t get me wrong, I still fought and played in the mud, but the fact that I was beginning to be held to standards that boys were not began to breed feelings of difference among my peers.
This growing gender awareness in my fellow children felt betraying. Gender differences were adult things, men and women getting along in their self-restrictive semantics. We were just kids, we didn’t have to worry about those things. But now people my own age were starting to feel the difference, starting to point at me and tell me that I was one thing and that they were another thing and because of that we were more different than the same. I combated every instance of being told I could not do something that boys could do. In my friend’s back yard, he said to me that boys were better because they could pee standing up. I said, “I can pee standing up too,” and he said, “no you can’t.” So I whipped down my pants and peed right there. He just said, “that doesn’t count.”
When we went to family gatherings I got stuck with whatever the women were doing while the men went off and did something usually more fun. It was the same when classes were divided by gender. I was incredibly frustrated that I wouldn’t be given the choice of what I wanted to do. It wasn’t that I felt a consistent alignment with all things “boy” over all things “girl”, I had very overlapping interests, and I just couldn’t stand that people would make assumptions about me based on my perceived gender and not on my personal preferences.
I was an aggressive child, and an aggressive teenager, but not more so than most boys. Yet my behavior was viewed as abnormal and inappropriate, spawning many derisive nicknames during elementary school — “monkey girl”, “dog girl”, “weird girl”, and “man”. The kids would sometimes call me a man as an insult, or accuse me of being a lesbian. Though neither of those labels offend me now, I raged against them at the time. It’s not the thing they call you so much as the meaning behind it. Somewhere between 3rd and 6th grade, gender-nonconformity went from being perceived as an oddity to an outright defect.
I was no longer able to fit in while being my weird gender-variant self. If I wanted to be liked, or even just left alone, I had to girl up. There were no other options. We were past the point of discussing transgenderism with innocent curiosity, now the possibility of becoming something other than a girl was thrown in my face as an accusation and affront. Only someone so deficient that they were humanly unable to fulfill their appropriate gender role would resort to such a thing. And that was what I was accused of being — a girl so terrible at being a girl that I must be something else entirely.
I had to prove them wrong. That I could be normal, that I could be attractive and likable. So I started wearing makeup (though it was something I’d always dabbled in, it had always been more of a costume rather than a personal care item). I started wearing tighter shirts and shorter shorts and doing everything I saw girls doing that made people like them. But for some reason it just didn’t fit on me the way it did on them. I could change the way I looked, but I couldn’t change the way I talked and acted. I still tackled my friends and play fought with guys well into high school, I was still known for being too boisterous and people would still question my gender and sexuality. It became more subtle, but girls still gave me these looks like I was playing dress-up even though we wore the same things.
High school was a difficult time for me. I’d been doing the girl thing for long enough that I didn’t really think about it anymore, I considered myself pretty content in my gender identity. But for some reason something just wasn’t right and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was what I’d wanted to be — attractive and well-liked. I was very openly bisexual and had no shortage of suitors of every gender, but for some reason I felt like I wasn’t able to truly connect with anyone. I felt detached from myself and from the people around me, and I couldn’t escape this feeling that no one liked me for who I really was, that everyone just liked some idea that they were projecting onto me. But I didn’t know who I was, and that was the problem. I felt this deep and nameless disconnect, like I’d been wearing a costume for so long I’d forgotten how to take it off, or what I even looked like underneath. I couldn’t stand to look at myself in the mirror, I hated seeing photos of myself, or seeing my name written down. Everything that was supposed to be representative of me felt wrong. I remembered my childhood and kept thinking that that was the “real me”, and that somehow something had gone wrong along the way. I became extremely depressed to the point where I wasn’t functioning well and had to leave school for a period of time.
It wasn’t until I was 17 that I heard the word “genderqueer”. “It’s where you don’t identify as a boy or a girl, or you’re kind of a boy and a girl at the same time,” my friend had explained to me. I felt something click into place. You know that feeling, where you hear something that just resonates with you instantly on a core level? That’s what I felt. I’d spent so long tapping at different parts of myself like a mechanic trying to figure out where the noise was coming from, and my friend had just come along and casually pushed a button and all of a sudden I was whirring along like normal again, for the first time since I was a child. It made more sense to me than anything ever had.
And that’s where things finally started to get better.
So no, I didn’t know I was a genderqueer child, because I didn’t know what genderqueer was. But if I’d been given the option, it certainly would have saved me a lot of heartache.
But this is definitely not the end of my story. It’s just the beginning of a new one.
Originally published at androgyneity.wordpress.com on March 15, 2015.