How do you know if you’re a woman or a man? No, really, how do you know? This may seem like a ridiculous question. I mean, its one of those things you just know, right? You know it so well you’ve never stopped to think about how you know. Do you look down at your genitals or breasts? Do you check how long your hair is or whether there are any neck ties in your closet? Do you have some blood drawn to learn about your genetic make-up? Of course not! You. Just. Know. Well, that is not the case for everyone.
I’d like to take a trip with you, a journey in, around, and through my gender. I’ll highlight some important moments and describe how I’ve made sense of them. This is a journey I’ve been on for the last four decades, and I want to share my story for those who’d like to know more about what it means to be trans or nonbinary. I also hope that someone who reads it might feel less lonely, less invisible, or more seen.
Gender is everywhere and shapes everything. It’s so much part of our world that we rarely, if ever, stop to look at it. This joke is a useful illustration:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning, how’s the water?” The two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” (Wallace, 2008)
We are (un)aware of gender in the same way that fish are (un)aware of water. Gender is everywhere, it touches everything, it surrounds us and we live in it, but so many of us are oblivious to it. Trans people are kind of like the older fish in the joke: We live in the water, just like all the other fish, but unlike most, we recognize the ways water shapes our existence, how we breathe it, live in it, and move through it.
Understanding Sex and Gender
When I was born a doctor looked at my genitals and decided I was a girl, I was assigned female at birth (AFAB). While my sex assigned at birth was “female” my gender was “girl.” A simple way to describe this difference is that sex is between your legs while gender is between your ears. Sex categories are based on biological differences like genitals, chromosomes, and reproductive organs. While many think there are only two sex categories, female and male, it is not quite that simple. Intersex folks are “born with reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of male or female”(Intersex Society of North America). Some believe sex is ultimately defined by chromosomes and that everyone either has XX or XY chromosomes. But reality is far more complicated than that. Just a few other chromosomal arrangements are: X, Y, XXX, XYY, XXY and variation in parts of the Y or X chromosome.
When I say that gender is “between your ears,” I mean that a person’s gender is not dependent on their physical characteristics. Rather, a person’s gender is based on whether they feel like or identify as a woman, a man, some combination of the two, or perhaps something else entirely. Gender includes things like the roles, expectations, and characteristics we think of as “masculine” and “feminine”, the clothes, hairstyles, emotions, hobbies, and interests that are expected for men and women.
Many treat sex and gender as if they are interchangeable, that they mean the same thing, but this is most definitely not the case! If sex and gender were the same, then everyone assigned female at birth would be a woman and everyone assigned male at birth (AMAB) would be a man, but there are millions of people for whom this is not true. There are people who were assigned male at birth and know that they are women, and there are folks who were assigned female at birth who know that they are men. I use the word transgender as an umbrella term for people whose sex assigned at birth and gender do not line up.
Fortunately, there’s been increasing visibility for trans people recently. Well, at least for some trans people. Which brings us back to my gender journey…
“It’s a Girl!”
As I mentioned above, when I was born, a doctor looked at my genitals and said, “Congratulations, it’s a girl!” I was assigned female at birth (AFAB), and throughout childhood I learned that I was a girl. I learned by family and friends telling me I was a girl and by people using the pronouns “she” and “her” to refer to me. I definitely knew I was a girl, I have no memories of ever feeling like I was not one. I don’t really remember thinking about my own gender much at that point.
What I do remember is being very upset at injustice from a young age. I don’t mean getting mad when my brother got to ride in the front seat of the car, but noticing when people were treated differently for what seemed to me like no good reason. In elementary school I recall a teacher asking for some strong boys to move a few desks in our classroom. At the tender age of eight, I was very bothered by this. Why did she need boys to move the desks? Why couldn’t the girls do it too? At around the same age I remember my dad referring to me as his “little feminist” with tremendous love and admiration. I’m not sure what lead to the comment, but I remember wearing that label with pride.
Another early experience with inequality came in my friendship with two boys who lived next door. I was around ten years old when they moved in. They were about the same age as my sister and me, and the four of us spent hours playing together and having a great time — that is until any of their friends, all of whom were boys, visited. Whenever that happened they totally excluded my sister and me and would throw in some sexist insults for good measure. After their friends would go home, everything would go back to normal. I seethed. I was hurt and angry and righteous. It felt so unjust, so unfair to be left out because I was a girl. I understand now that this treatment was part of the fragile construction of masculinity in which they were already ensconced, but at the time I could not make sense of it.
The one way I do remember being aware of gender as a kid was knowing that I was a tomboy. I liked playing outside and sports, didn’t care about getting dirty, and loved my skateboard and dirt bike. I hated wearing dresses and remember desperately wanting short hair, although I was never allowed to get it cut as short as I wanted. At the same time, though, I loved my Cabbage Patch Kids and Pound Puppies. I enjoyed gymnastics and was very nurturing to our countless family pets and when playing with my sister and friends. Aside from my neighbors, all of my friends were girls. My older brother and I got along as well as can be expected for siblings who are three years apart. I do remember harboring a deep seated jealousy of the clothes he got to wear, though, especially his Members Only jacket!
Growing Up — and Out!
Then, somewhere around 13, puberty hit. While some trans folks have a really hard time with the changes that happen during puberty I don’t remember feeling very strongly about my body changing. I remember being excited about the vague idea of growing up and eager to experience what I saw my friends going through, but I didn’t really connect with the idea of “becoming a woman” either. I didn’t hate getting my period or resist having to wear a bra, it didn’t feel wrong or like I was supposed be going through some other process. It just happened.
When I was a teenager I started to become aware of the strong and smart women in my life, especially my mom. She was 12 years old when she came to the U.S. as a refugee speaking no English. But by the time she was in her twenties she was one of only four women in her medical school graduating class. She’s had a thriving practice for decades as well as an impressive record of teaching and mentoring while also being an avid amateur ballroom dancer! She has been the model of a resilient, wise, competent woman. Both she and my dad worked for wages outside of our home. My father is traditionally masculine in many ways, but he is also nurturing and affectionate.
In adolescence, my awareness of injustice and inequality, as well as my curiosity about how to understand these things, continued to grow. In another early brush with fragile masculinity, I recall a conversation with a classmate in our first year of high school. He was sure that feminism meant that “girls want to take over the world.” Not only was I baffled by where this inaccurate understanding could have come from, but I was angry that he was mischaracterizing feminism as a desire to subjugate boys and men.
Around the same time I first started to get to know out, gay people. The AIDS crisis was rampant and gay rights conversations were happening in mainstream media. Just as when I was younger, while I was well aware of the stigma of being gay I could not understand how anyone could justify treating people differently because of their sexual orientation.
As far as my gender identity goes, in adolescence I continued to be tomboyish. My uniform was jeans and t-shirts with very few traditionally feminine garments, with a few notable exceptions for dressy occasions. I wore the cocktail dresses, jewelry, and heels, because that’s what I was supposed to do. Looking back I never took pleasure at getting dressed up in this way, I really avoided putting much effort or attention into it at all, but I did what was expected.
In college I started to learn about the social construction of gender and the problems with attributing differences between men and women to biology. I was thrilled to finally have the tools to start to make sense of the injustice and inequality that had been on my radar for so long. Not coincidentally, I came out as a lesbian in my senior year of college. Acknowledging to myself and to others that I was attracted to women was a huge relief and very liberating. While sexual orientation, who you are attracted to, is different from gender, who you are, coming out as a lesbian was an important step in my evolving gender identity. The expectations for women to fit into traditional beauty standards and notions of femininity are more relaxed when it comes to lesbians, in some contexts, at least.
Around this time I remember clearly the first pair of jeans sold in the men’s department that I wore. A friend of mine had bought them for herself, but they didn’t fit her and she offered them to me. They fit much differently than any jeans I had worn before. They were baggier and more boxy. They did not accentuate my hips, waist, or thighs. I loved them!
My physical presentation continued to evolve and within a few years of coming out as a lesbian, I had cut my waist length hair into a buzz cut and began regularly shopping for clothes in the men’s department. Up until that point I paid little attention to clothes, but once I started shopping in the men’s department, I discovered that I actually enjoyed style and fashion! Gradually I became more comfortable in my own skin. For example, while my body size did not change dramatically, I was far more at ease going to the beach in swim trunks and a sports bra (a.k.a. the “lesbian bikini”) than I had ever been in the “women’s” swimsuits that I used to wear, even though they provided more coverage.
It was at this time that I first started to be perceived as a man in casual interactions. It did not happen often, but from time to time someone would call me “sir” (or “dude” or “bro”). Every time this happened there was a part of me that smiled, at first it was only on the inside. This was not about my true self being recognized, I did not long to always been seen as a guy. Instead, it felt good to have someone recognize that I was something other than a woman.
What I hated in these interactions was the flustered, awkward apologies that would happen when whoever assumed I was a man realized that they had made a mistake. I always said it was “fine” and tried to move on, but that was easier said than done. On these occasions the women I was dating at the time would be very upset about people thinking I was a man; it seemed that they were far more invested in me being seen as a woman than I was.
Over my young adult years while my physical presentation evolved I was not consciously questioning my identity as a woman. If someone had asked me about my gender identity (I don’t recall this happening), I would have reflexively said that I was a woman.
During this time, though, I was intensely curious about people who were transgender. I did a lot of reading and watched lots of documentaries. This was the late 1990s/early 2000s, so while trans communities were not receiving as much attention then as they are now, it wasn’t hard find to information.
The stories I heard, over and over again, were of people who knew from a young age that they were the “opposite” gender from what they were labeled at birth, who felt like they were born in the wrong body: AFAB folks who played with toys normally meant for boys, whose friends were all boys, and/or who knew that they were boys from very early on and AMAB people who loved playing with dolls and wearing dresses and the colors pink and purple. Parents in these narratives described their trans kids as “rough and tumble” or “sensitive and caring,” as if these should have been clues that the person who they thought was their daughter was really their son, or vice versa. I heard about the intense emotional pain and anxiety they experienced living with bodies that felt so wrong. I learned about the extraordinary ways in which hormones and surgeries could change their physical appearance bringing them such peace and happiness, and I felt tremendous empathy for these folks.
Something Else Entirely
Over time I continued to grow more and more at ease presenting myself in what others described as a masculine way. A big step for me was shifting from wearing suits sold in the women’s department to those sold in men’s department for formal work occasions. It’s one thing to wear a tuxedo to a queer fundraiser but a very different thing to wear a suit and tie to work. There were a few ruffled feathers the first couple of times I donned my tie, but overall the world just kept on spinning.
I had been going to drag queen shows for decades, but I was in my early 30s before I attended my first drag king show and saw people assigned female at birth performing as men. After the show one of the kings said I had “a good look” and encouraged me to audition for the troupe. While I didn’t really consider auditioning, I did imagine what it would be like to present myself as a man on stage, to play with gender in that way. That comment touched something in me. It felt like a recognition of something about me that was not “woman.” Looking back on things, that sentiment, that idea, that feeling, that I was not a woman, had been rolling round in my consciousness for quite a while.
While by outward appearances I didn’t perform my gender in a way most people assume a woman should, I had a lot of qualities typically associated with women. I love babies and kids, and for a long time I was sure that I would be a parent and looked forward to the experience of being pregnant and giving birth to a child. I am nurturing, gentle, caring, and empathetic. I am a caretaker for kids and pets and friends. Let me be clear, though, being born with a uterus did not lead me to have these qualities. I share this description of myself to demonstrate that having a “masculine” appearance does not mean that I only express qualities traditionally associated with masculinity.
I remember telling my girlfriend (to whom I’m now married) that the label “woman” didn’t feel quite right, but that I also did not think of myself as a man. When she asked what that meant, I said I wasn’t really sure; at the time it was more of a feeling than anything else. On some level I felt that I couldn’t be transgender because, in my mind, being trans meant that I had to identify as a man, when I knew that was not how I felt.
I noticed thoughts about my gender bubbling into conversation more and more often. I remember hanging out with some friends at Baltimore Pride and saying that I would really prefer gender-neutral pronouns be used for me, but that it just seemed like too much trouble to ask for. I was almost surprised to hear myself say it. Later that summer I had a similar experience when I told two friends I was thinking of transitioning physically by taking testosterone. Part of me was like, “I am?” But then I realized, “Yes, in fact, I am.” By that point I had spent countless hours online reading about testosterone therapy, learning about what kinds of changes it leads to, and about the experiences of people who had transitioned in that way.
In the months and years since then I have continued to explore my gender and create an identity that fits. Kate Bornstein’s description of herself as “not-man, not woman” resonates very strongly with me. Some folks get frustrated when I describe my gender as what I’m not as opposed to what I am, but the lack of words to describe my gender is precisely the problem. I am not a man. I am not a woman. I am also not a mix or a blend of these two categories, or somewhere in between the two, and I don’t move between them. I do have a gender, but those words do not work to describe it. The label genderqueer fits nicely, as does the term nonbinary.
In the last few years I’ve changed my first and middle name to more gender-neutral options because my original names were almost exclusively used for women and gave the false impression that I was a women. I have changed my pronouns to they/them/their, began taking testosterone, and am making plans to have top surgery (removal of breast tissue and chest contouring). Even though its been a few years since I made the changes, hearing people call me “Ari” and use “they” to refer to me still brings me joy. It lets me know that I’m being seen, I’m visible. I’ve not yet had top surgery and have only been on testosterone for a few months, so I haven’t experienced many physical changes yet, but am very excited to have a flat chest, a lower voice (more on that here), different distribution of body fat, and all of the other changes that will come.
How’s the water?
My nonbinary gender identity may seem incongruous with my decision to make these changes to my body, because the physical changes will likely lead people to perceive me as a man. That’s not why I’m making the changes, but if that ends up happening, that will be fine. While I do not feel like I was born in the wrong body, my gender journey has led me to a place where the body with which I was born does not fit me anymore. It causes me intense distress and anxiety. Aside from personal discomfort, my body leads other people to continually and repeatedly misgender me as a woman. A double whammy. So I am making changes to reduce my own dysphoria and the frequency with which I’m incorrectly perceived as a woman.
I realize that my gender journey, my identity, my experiences, and my choices about my name, pronouns, and physical presentation may not make sense or seem logical, but guess what? It doesn’t need to be logical. In the end, not much about gender really is. And I’m okay if my gender doesn’t line up neatly in ways that other people can understand. It makes perfect sense to me.
Wallace, D.F. (2008, September 19). “David Foster Wallace on Life and Work”. Wall Street Journal. I’m not sure what the original source for this joke is, but a version of it appears in this Wall Street Journal article.
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