“Son, you’ve marked the wrong box. I’ll fix that.”
My photo ID had an “M” on it, through a stroke of luck/fate, and some greater cosmic [mis]understanding of the complexity of gender, plus the scratched, coke-bottle lenses of the octogenarian DMV clerk. I said nothing, stunned. And then left, quickly.
But, that wasn’t the first time in my life I had been read as male without trying. In fact, prior to my mean-girl phase, I was almost always read as a little boy. When she was around, my mother would try to correct people. When she wasn’t, I enjoyed the freedom to dig in the mud and roughhouse with the other boys, prior to putting on my gymnastics leotard. I earned a reputation as a real bruiser in soccer; they called me “the little weapon”, a jibe at my petite stature in an era of Arnold Swartzenager movies. Dolls were boring, and I hated sitting still through playing house or princess movies – except for My Little Pony, I LOVE My Little Pony.
Being a boy, part time, allowed me to play the rough and tumble sports that I wanted to play. I was able to have the friends that I wanted to have. And, I confidently walked by myself at night on the streets, my hoodie up over my head, watching the moon fade into the purple haze of early dawn, and nobody ever told me that walking alone at night wasn’t safe for little ladies. (This sense of safety alone on the streets at night may be more of a phenomenon of largely absent/irresponsible parenting, but I’m pretty sure it also has something to do with how the world perceived the gender of an 8 year old kid). Yet, at school and at gymnastics, I was a girl, living a split life for a while. And, I was a mean girl when I was in girl mode. I was popular, cute despite my mostly handed down clothes, had a crush on one of the cool boys (we held hands!), always had perfect hair, and cruelly asserted my presence as a pretty girl by mercilessly mocking “Carol the barrel”, my grade’s too-hairy, too-heavy girl.
When I was 9, I went to Girl Scout Camp, and met other girls who weren’t really girls either. Some of them were even more boyish than me, and that was a shock. I had never met girls who played too rough before, who ate bugs on a dare, and didn’t squeal at pulling leeches off their legs after wading through the green slime in the shallows of the lake.
Shortly after my third summer at Girl Scout Camp, I withdrew from the cool girls clique. It didn’t matter anymore, and I was sorry for what I had done to Carol for all of those years. That timing wasn’t a moment too soon. With the onset of puberty, I was suddenly a little bit too heavy for competitive gymnastics and a little bit too hairy to be cool. I cut my hair short, dyed it green, and became an outsider.
The thing about growing up is that you don’t get to stay a kid forever. Eventually, you need photo ID, there are always forms to fill out, and you have to pick a box. Male or female. If you leave it blank, somebody else will pick for you. If you pick one that the world doesn’t think is correct, you will be reassigned to better fit other people’s comfort.
Perhaps in another place and time, things would have been different. But, I was ten years too early for the concept of gender nonconformance as an acceptable identity. After leaving high school early to attend college, and then dropping out of college for lack of funding and increasing identity struggles, I had no marketable skills and nothing to show for qualifications. I found myself suddenly in the precarious place of being marginally housed, scavenging for stale bagels in Panera dumpsters, and doing day labor or various other odd jobs where I could find them. I hitchhiked around the country, with all of my clothes and a few possessions on my back, allowing the truckers to believe the narrative they flawlessly invented for me: pre-teen, boy runaway. When rides became hard to find, or I was weary of trucker banter, I rode freight trains. Living as a boy five years younger than my actual age became a habit, and allowing people to invent my past in their imaginations became a self-preservation mechanism. Being a boy traveler isn’t as unsafe as being a girl traveler. The only requirement is erasing your own history and never slipping up. Slipping up has dire consequences.
Who do you think I am? I can be whoever you want me to be.
Then, I arrived in Philadelphia, and found myself at a roudy punk house party. It was New Years Eve, to my surprise. I had lost track of time in my travels. I was exhausted and fell asleep on a couch, despite the blasting noise. I woke up two days later to one of the residents poking me to find out if I was dead. My backpack was gone. My travel companion was gone.
“Do you want to catsit? I’m traveling to Mexico till the spring.”
I had come of age in my travels. Now 18, I used my time with free housing and small amount of income to take an EMT course and find a more settled life. Being an EMT was a lot like the traveling life; hyper-masculine, unedited, and a bit risky for women and non-conformers. My photo ID said “M” and thus I started my work history with a place in the men’s locker room. I continued my habit of having no history, and held the world at arms length. I went to extremes with lifting weights to build up my core and upper body strength so that when it came to lifting the heaviest of patients I would never have to ask for help, compensating for my small stature. Coming out could have meant becoming a hate crime statistic.
Our circumstances shape our identities.
I was living as a man and did not really know how to live as an adult in any other way. I had very few friends who knew I was not male assigned. My experience with living a stealth life resonated with that of being trans*, female to male, and I embraced that as my own identity. It was the only thing that made sense to me, as a way to find others like me and to define my experience. Living as an outsider was so hard. I so desperately wanted things to get easier. Maybe if I could mold myself to better fit this identity, life would be easier.
Nearly fifteen years ago, when I first put my name on the wait list of gender identity counseling, there was no third gender. The only acceptable narrative was that of the classic transsexual: trapped in the wrong body, dysphoric, heterosexual, conforming to gender stereotypes. Choose to express anything otherwise and you fail the test. As a guy, that means erasing desire to sometimes be a girl, sexual desire for men, or to wear sparkly nailpolish. Even medical care was coercive at that time. There was only one pathway forward for trans* people at that time. It was 100% or nothing.
I chose to tap out of that path early on. I was warned by the clinic that if I didn’t come back again to check off box #8 on the checklist, that if I didn’t come back for a testosterone shot, I would be off the list.
I was off the list, but that didn’t really matter. I never needed much help to pass as a guy, albeit a small and sensitive guy, as long as I kept my clothes baggy, my gaze down and my eyes cold. It was always my eyes that gave me away.
Years later, living in Western PA, working as a Paramedic, I was still stealth. I still had an absent past and kept friends at an arms length. But, now I was boiling up with rage at the new, younger generation and their phenomenon of “genderqueer”. Who were they to try to redefine my struggle? Don’t they know that they can’t speak for us, the real trans* people who went through the system? How dare they try to speak for us? They are so naive. So lucky. These 18 year old college kids wearing Abercrombie and Fitch, flaunting pins with genderqueer symbols on their backpacks, are so privileged to never have had to fear for their lives while living a life so out in the open. Times had changed, but my life hadn’t. I was still immersed in a world where hatred of fags, love of guns, and racist jokes ruled.
And, then, I moved to the ultra-liberal and ultra-safe world of Yale and Connecticut. It was a shock. That was the fall that I came out to USA Cycling, the ECCC, and all of the Yale Cycling community. At that time, my language was still that of being a gender-normative trans guy. I hadn’t yet had time to reconnect to my past, or relax into just being myself again. That first season of racing in the women’s field was jarring. Change is hard. Peeling back all of that rage hurt. But, humans are good at evolving.
Looking at the progression of entries into this blog, I see the slow creep of nonconformity setting in. I started accepting myself, for myself. I started remembering what it was like to grow up as a girl. I started taking pride in my history, and in my accomplishments as a physiologically female athlete, although I still live as a guy in my professional life. My language to describe myself has changed drastically in the past three years, as has my personal identity.
Originally, I stated myself as a guy, who is physiologically female. I am still a guy. I’m one of the guys, but I also give myself room to be one of the girls. The glitter is back, fulltime. The eyeliner is back, fulltime. I’ve made a promise to myself to wear clothing that fits and is comfortable, which these days mostly means wearing women’s clothing. Either pronoun is fine, although I prefer a daily mix rather than strictly one or the other.
I’m back to where I was when I was 10. I live part of my life as one of the boys, and the other part of my life as one of the girls. Being able to have the freedom to be all of myself is important to me. Having a history is important, and having friends who know me for me is the most important.
Identity: everything. nothing. something else.