I left college a few semesters shy of graduating and moved back to my mother’s house in lower Alabama for the summer. For a season I ran errands with my young nephew in tow, took walks in the muggy 90 degree evening heat and applied for jobs in the 49 states that weren’t Alabama. When I got a call back, it was from a homeless shelter in Atlanta. They hired me over the phone and expected me at work in two weeks.
My mother offered to buy me clothes suitable for my new workplace. With great reservations, I agreed and we went to a department store. I picked up a pair of pants and then made my way over to the jewelry counter. I spun the locked Plexiglas case of watches. A clerk floated over. I pointed to a cheap, black analog watch: “this one, please.” She unlocked the case and handed me the timepiece. I turned to find my mother stern-faced and silent. We walked to the register, she paid and we walked to the car without speaking.
There was nothing remarkable about the wrist watch but asking for it stands out as one of my most egregious offenses. It wasn’t. In the 20 years that preceded that request I had failed in similar ways countless times.
The department store was close enough to my mother’s house that the air conditioner didn’t have time to completely cool the car before we pulled into the garage. “Why are you angry?” I asked.
She put the car in park. “Why did you get a man’s watch?”
“I didn’t. I just got the watch with a face I can read at first glance.”
“It’s a man’s watch. You never pick stuff made for women,” she replied.
The car ran for something like an hour, maybe longer. It ran long enough that other members of the household opened the door and mouthed, “What’s going on?” before being waved away. As the car idled my mother charged me with being unclear about my gender. I responded that I was actually very clear and that sexual orientation and gender identity were separate things. I was a woman who was attracted to other women. I tried to explain that gender is performative. That she too was performing her gender in a particular way. She said she was doing no such thing. She heard nothing. She fumed.
At the ultrasound, my parents didn’t ask about my genitals. My mother, having four brothers, had resigned herself to her first child being a boy. She was sure. No need to ask. So when I slid from my mother’s body into the doctor’s hands and he announced, “You had a girl!” My mother responded, “Really?”
I was an impeccably dressed kid. There are no childhood photos of me looking dirty. My little clothes were so clean they were resold on consignment not dropped in thrift store donation boxes. Certainly my mother was meticulous but I was somewhat un-childlike. I was well-behaved beyond stated requirements, quiet, compliant. But despite not taking up space the way children usually do, I did stand out. Like both of my parents, I was tall. By first grade I was a head taller than most of my classmates.
By age 11 I was 5’10”. I was hard to dress and like most middle schoolers, I felt and looked awkward. Though a disparaging word about my height was never uttered by my family, lots of adults began to tell me I shouldn’t worry about my stature. Girls grow first but the boys will catch up.
The summer before ninth grade, the summer when I grew three more inches, I didn’t think much about boys. By the middle of my freshman year in high school, 14 years old and an inch over six feet tall, I told a friend that I was never going to worry about whether the boys caught up because I was a lesbian.
As a teenager, I didn’t have a style so much as a way of dressing that was unoffensive. My hair hung just past my shoulders. I wore tight jeans and t-shirts that fit well enough. Seasonally appropriate footwear. A watch (a long undiagnosed astigmatism would eventually explain my perpetual need for an easy to read face). No make-up. Minimal jewelry. There was nothing explicitly feminine about my presentation and nothing particularly masculine.
Before my mother found out I was gay, her critique of my wardrobe was rather benign. I didn’t wear enough color. I didn’t try to look pretty. Typical jabs that mothers make at girl children about appearance. After my mother found out her corrections became more severe. But there was a pause, a collection of days after she discovered my queerness when she didn’t say much to me at all. She would pass me silently, quickly on the stairwell or in the foyer on her way to any room where I was not. I heard her sobbing behind closed doors. Sometimes, after she caught my eye in passing, she would walk to another room and vomit.
I can’t call up, in full at least, a lot of the things my mother said to me in the four years between my coming out and my leaving home. Many of those exchanges are lost to the mind’s desire to forget things that wound. But the first real thing she said to me following the pause is not stored in my mind but in my body. My mother, just a few inches shorter than me but more imposing than I would ever hope to be, came into my bedroom and hugged me close to her. I can remember the way her hair felt against my face, her hands pressed into my back. I can smell her concealer the minute the memory arrives. In this moment that felt like understanding, she leaned into me and said through tears, “We’re going to get you help for this. We are going to fix it.”
Over the next few years I was sent to a series of therapists for repair. If they weren’t prepared to notice the glaring problem of my sexuality and do something “reparative” I was removed from their care. Some of these therapists asked if I had been raped. Most of them asked me how I felt about my father or my parent’s divorce when I was in elementary school. All of them talked about my height. It must be hard to be taller than all the boys. Had I ever been asked on a date by a boy? Did I think I was attractive?
My mother left flyers on the kitchen counter and my bed advertising Exodus International’s “femininity workshops.” She hid or threw away clothes of mine she didn’t like. If I left the house in the morning in a jacket and she guessed that I was wearing something under it she disapproved of, occasionally she would show up at school unexpectedly to catch me wearing the forbidden, too masculine thing. I remember being called out of class one time to find my mother waiting outside the door to scold me about my clothes. Dressed in my father’s college track shirt, I recall looking up during lunch period one afternoon to see my mother standing at a distance calling me away from my friends to warn me about the consequences that awaited me at home after the school day ended.
By the time I asked for the wrong watch I had done so many things incorrectly despite reverting to the compliance I had mastered in childhood. Decent grades, no substance use, a handful of exceedingly kind romantic partners, tears and silence instead of push back when confronted about gender and sexuality missteps. But it wasn’t enough. It, I wasn’t fixed.
At 20 I had enough language to talk about gender as performance. But I hadn’t sat with my own story long enough to understand what that meant for me in particular. I was being told again and again that an immutable characteristic was masculinizing. I was too tall. I was taking up too much space. My height made men and boys uncomfortable. If I would overcompensate for this feature boys would find me attractive, pursue me and their pursuit would draw me in, making me want them in return. My lesbianism wasn’t my only or perhaps even my biggest problem. I didn’t just need to be attracted to men. I needed to have a different body. I needed to be smaller in an impossible way. I needed to shrink.
I moved to Atlanta wearing an inappropriately gendered watch and worked. I met a woman who was good to me and we started living together. Eventually we moved to Asheville, North Carolina. Asheville is known for many things now. But before the town became a rapidly gentrifying foodie destination or the brewery capital of the East coast, it was a city that new age-y types flocked to. I was surrounded by these people as my partner trained to do holistic birth work. By this group, I was often read as masculine and characteristics were ascribed to me that felt foreign. Women asked me to help them build book cases without knowing whether I had any experience doing such work. Several people asked me how they might get in touch with “masculine, warrior energy.” My relationship with my femme-presenting partner was talked about in binary terms that felt antiquated and inaccurate. On more than one occasion it was assumed that my partner cooked all of our meals. I was never invited to “girls nights.” In quality, the gender policing at the hands of new age straight people felt similar to the policing I had experienced from my Southern Baptist mother.
A few years into our time in North Carolina my partner became pregnant. We were both so excited. It had initially been the plan that I would carry but I was having health issues that made pregnancy unsafe for me. Our community of friends and acquaintances knew that the plan was for me to carry first. But when my partner conceived someone told her that they knew I would never carry. People said she was obviously a better fit to be a biological mother. I stood by, usually un-addressed, while people congratulated her about the pregnancy. Meanwhile I mailed my mother a pregnancy announcement. She never responded.
In Asheville, I became defensive and withdrawn. I returned to insisting that women can look and act an infinite number of ways. But I was also tired of the defense. The truth was that my self-policing around gender was intense enough that I no longer even needed external reminders that I was failing to be convincing as a woman. Yet I had no desire to be read as a man and had no interest in the masculine roles that were being assigned to me.
My gender didn’t slip away all at once. But if there was a moment during which I actually felt the construction totally hollow out, it was at a prenatal visit. We sat together in the waiting room until a nurse called us back to do an intake. The nurse didn’t look at me. She didn’t ask how I knew the pregnant person with me. She sat in front of a computer, asking my partner questions about the pregnancy. She asked about “the dad.” My partner pushed back on the question. The nurse insisted that she needed to know about the conception. I sat against the wall watching a dialogue I was never asked to join. I remember looking down at my body, rubbing my hands together and wondering if I was dreaming. Was I even in the room? Could the nurse see me?
I never shrank so I disappeared. None of the therapists I was sent to would explain to me that shrinking is part of the way you prevent being erased. I was too much. Too much body. Too much wanting other queer people. Too much voice about what wasn’t just. So people had to stop seeing me. This experience of invisibility is so common for people of color, trans folks, queer people, women, disabled folks, elders, people without homes, people who use drugs, and certainly anyone who lives at the intersection of these identities. We are all given a period of time to be reformed and become small and if we won’t agree to the terms then the people who enforce the terms stop looking. That’s part of the external cost. For each of us, the internal cost is different. So much changes for each of us during the policing that precedes invisibility.
In Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, Eli Clare acknowledges that his gender and sexuality were impacted and informed by externalities like his upbringing AND the experience of “knowing and feeling” before adulthood that presenting as the gender he was assigned at birth didn’t work. But he worries about what it means to refuse the narrative that he was born trans and queer. Does this prove that “the homophobes are right”? Is his trans identity, his sexuality merely the product of abuse and neglect? I grapple with these questions too.
Would I have asked for “boy’s clothes” as a child if I didn’t have some sense of how happy it made my mother to put me, her unexpected girl, in smocked dresses? Were therapists seeing dysphoria I didn’t know was there? Or was there a confirmation bias? How would I talk about my gender now if I had been raised outside of the South/if my coming out had been a non-issue to my family/if I had fallen in with a crowd less obsessed with the gender binary upon moving to Asheville?
I don’t know the answers to these questions. Ten years after picking the wrong watch, my theory is that my gender was always a fragile construction. Other people built a gender for me and trusted that I would defend what they built. But what I was handed never made sense. I couldn’t figure out how to follow the rules about femininity in the body I have. I never understood what other people were seeing when they looked at me. And by the time I had the courage to step outside of myself to take a look, I saw nothing at all. Whatever girlness/womanness was cobbled together by family and larger culture has been interrogated away. Now there is nothing where the precarious construction was. For me, agenderism is the result of a long-running lack of investment in passing AND the homophobic, gendered violence that I experienced beginning in childhood.
A couple of years ago, my romantic relationship with my child’s other parent ended. After a nearly eight year partnership, we both created online dating profiles and started meeting new people for coffee and drinks.
I decided that this situation, the search for prospective partners through ramble-y “about me” sections and awkward first date chats, necessitated me figuring out how to explain my gender, or lack thereof, to other people. Lots of well-meaning folks, attempting to make sense of me and my presentation, describe me as masculine-of-center. This feels inaccurate. I still believe that a great deal of peoples’ reading of me as masculine has almost everything to do with size, not a particular way that I am choosing to present myself. So “he” has never been an appropriate pronoun for me. “She” isn’t big enough for me now. But “they” isn’t quite right either (though I use this neutral pronoun most often). What pronoun does one use to refer to an absence rather than a clearer, knowable thing (e.g. woman/man) or even a complex otherness (e.g. genderqueer)? The name I was given at birth still seems fine some days and a shortened version of that name feels better at other times. The truth is that all the words fail and the spaces where language about this stuff isn’t required provide sanctuary. I have met people who understand this: my child who at three and a half hasn’t decided on a pronoun for me and seems in no rush to settle on anything besides “mama” (still a genderless term in this little person’s understanding); friends, including my kid’s other parent, who occasionally check in with me about how I am feeling about my name and pronouns with no agenda; lovers who have never said that my body and the way I dress it would make more sense some other way.
For me liberation has looked like loss. But I know that’s not true for a lot of folks. This gender nihilism I have come to isn’t prescriptive, it’s personal. I want people who have fought to have their presentation and pronouns respected to have everything they need, not just to feel safe and seen, but also celebrated. Kate Bornstein, Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore, Kit Yan, Alok Vaid-Menon and countless other trans and non-binary writers have called out the system that has failed us. We aren’t failures. We are telling one another that there is no being “too much” when what we’re offered isn’t enough. We are making room for one another to take up the space needed to survive.