‘I Felt Both And Neither’: Reflections On The Gender Binary
By Naseem Jamnia
In high school, I would say I was a gay man in a woman’s body. At the time, gay meant liked the same gender to me, not history of political and personal struggles, discrimination, and hatred for a personal choice that is no one else’s damn business. What I meant was: Although I am attracted to men, and am born female, I associate more strongly with male and masculine characteristics.
A few years ago, my psychiatrist asked me about these supposed qualities. He said that there is nothing male and female about things such as dominance, assertiveness, aggression — and he assured me I was not aggressive, although I think I am. I didn’t have the words for it then, but I do now: He was absolutely right. These qualities are not inherently gendered. But with the way we live, they are gendered nonetheless. Saying I am assertive as a man means I exhibit leadership qualities, but as a woman, means I am bossy. A woman is gentle and maternal. A man takes initiative. Even a man and woman’s strengths are different.
These are the usual stories.
For all my years of “having gay friends!” I knew next to nothing about queer theory. Gender theory was even more foreign to me. Like most individuals, I understood the binary: man, woman, and sometimes you were born one but were actually the other. The words for how I felt — I want to learn to be a woman, but I don’t feel like one; I wish I were a man, sometimes, but then occasionally I want to feel feminine; why don’t I feel either most of the time? — didn’t exist for me.
One of my closest friends, Misha, originally came out as bi-gendered on his way to transitioning. He alerted me to this idea — that we could be sometimes male, sometimes female. The summer he came out, I’d just graduated from college and was receptive enough to realize that something about what he said resonated with me — and something didn’t. Bi-gendered sounded like being sidelined to one or the other, but being able to switch. I didn’t feel that way — I felt both and neither. What did that mean? Judith Butler should have taught me, but I hadn’t yet learned: Gender is a performance.
I tried going out in public as a boy, disguising my sex a la my favorite heroine, Alanna of Trebond, the girl who wanted to be a knight when only men were allowed. It felt wrong. I went out to the post office and mumbled to the person at the desk, tucking my hands into my oversized hoodie, avoiding people’s faces in case there was someone I knew, someone who would call me out on my lie. So I tried on he and his in the mirror, and didn’t like it either. I’d always wanted to be a she and felt like I wasn’t.
In our world, things are supposed to fall into categories: cat or dog, Wars or Trek, girl or boy. None of the above isn’t usually an option.
When I was growing up, I volunteered at the summer reading program at my local public library. One year, I met a girl with short hair named Sarah. The next year, his name was Jockey. I once called him a she in this later time, and was gently corrected by the librarian who was with us. Oh, my mistake, I said, or something akin to that, and thought I had just been mistaken in the past. I remember staring at his breasts afterwards, and then shrugging it off, confused.
My young conceptions of gender were limited in that way, as I imagine they are for many children — and adults.
A year ago, I sat on OKCupid and flicked through gender labels, thrilled that there were a myriad of descriptions to choose from. What would I choose? I was still experimenting with labels, with something that felt like me. Agender, I clicked. Androgynous, I clicked. Genderfluid. Genderqueer. Other. Interested in: men. Then I paused. Both. Then maybe I switched back to men again. How do I define my sexuality if I can barely define my gender?
My gender declarations went largely ignored by most potential messengers — only one response to them sticks in my mind. The exact words, his one or two sentences informing me that in fact only two genders exist, slide from my mind, but what he implicitly communicated is still there: How dare you use other labels for your identity? How dare you grasp your gender with confidence enough to showcase it on a dating website? I am threatened by your defiance of these norms.
Maybe, when I blocked him, I did what we aren’t supposed to, and fed the troll. Maybe, when I reported him to OKC, I just wanted to satisfy my own sense of injustice.
Instead, not even a day later, an OKC employee named Todd or Tim or maybe neither of those names responded to my short, he said a shitty thing about my gender report. We are so sorry that you have received this message, it said, or something like that. No one deserves to have their identity invalidated. Their response told me that someone took my issue seriously: Yes, this is not okay. Yes, you are right to be upset. Whether it was policy or genuine apology, the response kept me on the site.
A few days later, a man messaged me who would later become my fiancé.
When my friend Misha got married this past July, it was as his true self. With the help of loving friends and family, and even random strangers on Indiegogo, Misha was able to afford the chest surgery that was part of his transition from female to male a mere month before his wedding. I stood at the front of the room with him on that day, both of us in suits: He had his tailored especially for his body, I picked up mine from the men’s section at Macy’s. I matched him, the groomsmen, and even the bridesmaids with a minty tie, but had the unique privilege of being the only woman in a suit.
When his now-wife, Elise, came up the aisle to stand across from him, it struck me again how natural everything felt. Lovely, feminine Elise, her slender frame in a low-backed trailing dress and her then-long golden brown hair braided up. As lifelong friends, Misha and Elise had begun dating in high school, and now, one month after they graduated college, they were legalizing their union.
Once, Misha might have been standing at the proverbial altar as Michelle. He might have been wearing a dress, and using the pronoun to match his biological sex. But in the spring of 2013, as I was getting ready to graduate college, he and I sat in his dorm’s courtyard, looking up at the pale orange glow of pollution, and he told me he wanted to transition. At this point, Misha hadn’t worn a dress in six months. That summer, we lived together while I looked for an apartment to transition into my master’s program. He had realized that he wasn’t ready for a trans identity, and came out as bi-gendered. He would move from one pronoun to the other, and gradually, stopped using the female altogether.
Misha and I met in a creative writing class at the end of my third year and his first year. I learned he was bi through an exercise where we exchanged true stories and then rewrote each other’s in an exaggerated, tall-taley, how-much-can-we-stretch-the-truth fashion. Then that fall, after a range of psychiatric issues that had resulted in more than one suicide attempt for me, we met again in another writing class, this time with Elise in tow. Our reconnection kindled the embers of our acquaintance, and within weeks, we were intimate friends.
They stood with me throughout my last year in college, and then through the coming years after, experiencing alongside me my relationship woes: an abusive partner through college, and even a little afterwards; a handful of dates with online randos in the 2013–14 school year, during my master’s program; my brief liaisons at the end of 2014, rounding into the new year. Then, in February of 2015, I met the love of my life. Misha and Elise were thrilled to meet him, the Online Success Story — a cis man.
At their wedding, he swayed with me on the dance floor, and I caught the two of them watching us and smiling. “I promised not to tell, but I have to tell you,” I told them when we went over for brunch some months later. “We’ve talked about getting engaged. I don’t know when it’ll happen, but I think it will.”
Neither of them was surprised, but still, they beamed. When I told them we weren’t planning on having a ceremony at our eventual wedding, Misha tugged at my sleeve and said, “But will you have something so I can cry all over you?” Neither of them has asked why we didn’t want a traditional wedding. Neither of them questioned if I would wear a dress or a suit. My answers are half-assed: Neither of us likes being the center of attention; weddings are too expensive; and, the worst, I don’t know how to present myself.
Now that we are setting plans for our families to have a celebration in the coming months, the reality hits me: I still don’t know the answer.
A few weeks ago, my mother and I were in the car when she said, “I was talking about the definition of queer in my class. I use you and Gabe as an example of a queer couple.”
It startled me, and made me laugh. “How do you figure that?”
“Well you’re both non-gender conforming. That’s how I argue it.”
My mother is an early childhood education teacher: She teaches teachers how to teach up to preschool or kindergarten ages. She had told me some weeks before that she was teaching queer theory in infant mental health, which hardly anyone was doing. It’s so revolutionary, I tease in a mock-Mom voice, which makes my partner laugh.
Her definition of “non-gender conforming” made me laugh, too. “I see how you think he’s gender non-conforming. You have different definitions of manhood.”
“Well — ” My mom shrugged. “He’s sensitive and talks about his feelings.”
“He went to therapy because of his body dysmorphia,” I added.
“Yes, he seems very in touch with things.”
My partner is everything men are told not to be: gentle and kind, soft-spoken and shy. He’s an introvert, preferring to spend a day at the dog park rather than with people. He went to therapy for six months and learned to embrace radical openness. When he messaged me on OKCupid, he opened with the story of his eating disorder, now one year in remission. He checks for consent constantly, never assuming it’s always given. He publicly kisses me and tells me that he loves me, that I’m beautiful, that he is proud of who I am.
“I suppose you are gender non-conforming to her,” I told him later.
“I define what manhood means to me,” he said.
He taught me to do the same — define what masculinity or femininity means to me. And he encouraged me to own it, regardless of what my parents or anyone else said.
“If you want to wear a suit to the wedding,” he said, when I fretted about what I was going to wear as Misha and Elise’s officiant, “then you wear a suit. Ignore whatever your parents say.”
I wish it were that easy. It’s getting easier, a little. My mom is learning what clothes I deem acceptable. My dad “doesn’t get it,” but it doesn’t come up, either. As long as I am wearing “appropriate” (re: not revealing) clothing, I can wear a tie or my brother’s polos or whatever I want. But it’s not the same as what my cousin Dave says: Go where the love is. Do what makes you happy.
What is your gender? On my graduate school applications, I was faced with this question over and over again. Male. Female. Choose not to disclose. But I want to disclose — I want to explain how it feels to be both a woman and not, to reject what makes me feel female in order to feel closer to it. I want to explain, in being raised female, I am a woman. I want to explain, in being the son my dad didn’t have, I am not female. I want to whisper in their ears: The gender binary is a myth.
I ticked through my applications, choosing female, and writing essays saying I am non-binary and Persian and can check off the diversity points. Then I came across a different section.
What is your biological gender?
Male. Female. I could live with that.
What is your gender identity?
Trans man. Trans woman. Genderqueer/gender non-conforming. Other.
And there, in that little space, there was room for me to say, I am non-binary because I reject what it means to be a woman or a man in this society. There was room for me to say, I don’t mind female or gender neutral pronouns because even so, I am proud to be a woman. There was room for me to say, thank you for not erasing me. Thank you for seeing me. I exist.
Lead image: flickr/a.dombrowski