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15 June 2011, 4:00 pm 4 Comments

Gender Identity: The Red Herring

Submission by Erica Stratton, first-time TNG contributor. Erica Stratton is a DC-based queer who enjoys brooding like a boy, fighting like a boy, and loving like a boy, but only looks good in skirts. She curates photos and pens the Gender Heroes series at Genderfork.

I once tried and failed to explain what “queer” meant to someone. They countered each of my points by saying that “queer” was too broad to have any meaning. “So does IT”, I riposted with a deliberate jab at their profession. Besides, “queer” wasn’t even meant to be specific: it grew out of a community whose ideas and vocabulary are constantly in flux, and where personal fluidity is a norm.

The problem is, I’m having the same problem with the term “woman,” “girl,” “female,” or “femme”.

I didn’t always think about being a girl. I could say that I’m from a rural area, with all the gender ignorance that implies. Except that our town was built on college students, and there was a gay club with drag shows every week. I was sleeping with women and falling for men; my best cisgender female friend had a knife collection, and put in time at the shooting range between college courses. In hindsight, we were doing queer and gender-bending things all the time, but we didn’t really call it that. We were only a group of about 30 or so, who did what we did because it seemed right to us. No politics were involved.

Then, in college, I stumbled upon “The Houseboys Rebellion,” a sex story written by Sinclair Sexsmith. It was only then that I learned about the extra parts people could strap on to be read as another gender to outsiders, and what the words “butch” and “femme” meant in a queer context. I felt like the world had been keeping something from me, and set out to learn more. I discovered that, like me, many other women felt like they didn’t have the right body shape to be feminine, or felt shame when they couldn’t make themselves care about fashion. And then, later, that you could still be feminine without makeup or high heels. I found the more about gender I read, the more my idea of female changed, but the idea of my own gender remained clouded.

Eventually, I joined a group of bloggers who founded Genderfork, a website celebrating androgyny. After I’d been part of the community for almost three years, I decided it was time to buy a binder. After delving through thousands of photos depicting femmes of all genders I’d come back around to embracing eyeliner, skirts, and the color pink, but I wanted to see if the queer rite of passage would transform me in a way that my journey into femme fashion hadn’t quite done. I hoped that, somehow, the garment and the gender it implied would bring the disparate parts of my temperament into some kind of focus.

To my surprise, I enjoyed wearing it. The snugness was comforting, and the way my body looked, though not exactly breast-less, was different enough from my usual mighty prow that I got to taste what it was like to be in another body for a while. But I had DD breasts and a wardrobe full of cleavage shirts and, after a while, I didn’t feel the urge to wear it as strongly as I had. Anticlimax.

Besides the expense of buying a whole new wardrobe, I stopped trying on butch-ness because I felt like I was stealing something (I was reading Stone Butch Blues at the time, and the idea of the “weekend butches,” who put on a skirt at the first sign of a raid, ate at me). There were many things I related to in the butch-authored stories that I read: the prideful self-reliance, coupled with the fear that you weren’t strong enough, or brave enough. The unemotional facade masking the reckless need to fall in love. But, as with high femme, there just wasn’t enough of a pull to make my soul fully over into one or the other. I’m too worried about being employed full time to be a full-time butch, and too practical to want to ornament myself as even as a “low” femme. In the end, I was neither fish nor fowl nor good red herring.

The truth is that I make clothing decisions based on the fact that I always forget about what I’m wearing as soon as I have it on. I could go towards one end of the binary or the other fashion-wise, but due to a lack of time, money, or interest I always stall in my efforts. My journeys toward high-femme, ironically, made me better able to pass as a non-frumpy straight girl, my David Bowie earrings and purple leopard print scarf notwithstanding. Still, I’m still clueless around makeup and shoes and tailoring (but you can be femme without all those things! But then what does being femme mean?)

And yet I define myself as a girl because of my boobs and vagina, which I think about as little as my clothes after I put them on. (Isn’t that the ultimate cop-out?) I don’t care what word you use for me as long as it’s not an insult, though I will always be the first one to protest when someone uses the wrong pronoun for someone else. I read stories about the struggles people go through to have their sense of self acknowledged, and wonder why there is no rough part of me which grates against the labels the way they do for others. When I try to think of actions that make me the most me, it’s only one: sitting here typing in hopes someone will read it. When I think about my own gender, all I get is a sense of undifferentiatedness, of neuter, of greyness.

Or perhaps there isn’t a word for me yet, at least not one I’ve found. I’m not a tomboy (too much the desk jockey.) My uneasiness with claiming butch and femme we’ve already covered. When I went Googling, I found “hoyden” and “demoiselle,” which feel too Victorian for general use. A list of masculine-of-center names I found on Tumblr seemed like a good start, but far too many of them have roots in the lesbian community for me to feel comfortable using them (Could I say I was a bi stud? Boi? And who’s Shane?)

And yet why can’t I be a mostly-straight female and all these things: brave, physically strong, practical, most comfortable in casual clothes? I could be the Ripley or Zoe Alleyne for all these things. (Oh, honey, you are a certain kind of straight boy, identifying with a warrior woman when you’ve only shot a pistol once in your life.) I was raised by a straight, cisgender, single mom. Who am I to say what female can and can’t be, when she wore a woman’s suit to work, then came home and tore down walls and put up wallpaper?

This is where my efforts at self-definition collapses in on itself. The concept of a masculine-acting-yet-mostly-straight girl sounds like the worst possible conglomeration of cis-privilege and gender-fucking. Maybe we need to create a new word again, like how cisgender came into being after the definitions of boy and girl had stretched out so far they came back from the other side. Or maybe I just need to create my own androgynous style for myself… as soon as I figure out where to put my DD boobs.

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  • Jess said:

    I have never bothered to comment on a website before, because honestly I like keeping a low online profile, but thanks for writing this. I never felt like any of the terms being tossed around even vaguely fit me. I don’t even really want them to. I’m just a ‘me.’ But when I read a lot of people who identify so strongly as these terms, it makes me feel like there’s not space for me-people in any of the communities I think I should belong to. So it’s nice to hear someone else talk about being themselves and not feeling like any terms fit.

    Plus, I always get really happy when someone name-checks Ellen Ripley or Zoe!

  • Micah said:

    The beauty of all these identities is that their not as clear cut as they sound. Identity terms are malleable for those who identify that way, and from day to day, my identity is often different.

    I ID as a genderqueer transman. The “genderqueer” part gives me the most freedom, because I can present my gender in any way I want to. For me, Genderqueer means that my actions are either not gendered or intentionally gendered. I find liberation in the fact that I can present however I want to, as my mood changes. Some days I’m way more effeminate (I also ID as a transfag), and other days I’m more of a “stud.”

    The point is, our identities are fluid, and this butch/femme dichotomy keeps people in equally as stifling a box as male/female, masculine/feminine.

    ID the way you want to, with terms that work for you, regardless of what community they come from. The point is that you are comfortable with that term, and that you’ve gotten to a place where that term doesn’t define you, but defines a part of you that is important. You can shape the term however you want, and people in different places often have different terms, or different definitions of the same term.

    So play with it, and be masculine, or be butch, or be stemme, or be feminine, or be whatever! That’s the beauty of the horizons that we’re expanding – moving away from that suffocating binary that doesn’t work for a lot of people.

  • Plasmo said:

    As a queer m2m transguy who previously identified as lesbian simply for gender purposes, I agree. There needs to be much broader terms of female masculinity outside of lesbian ident. Atm there simply isn’t and it isn’t helping anyone.

    As much as identity should be the main discussion point here, I would like you through some advice in regard to the body. First off, don’t feel strange about warrior female empathy. That’s there because sometimes with female hormones, the typically masculine traits are harder to slip into. Some transguys get that too. If you want, you could consider changing your diet up to decrease estrogen hormones and aim for a muscular yet female form, and there are plenty of ways to do that, just look up “increase testosterone”. Dw, you won’t somehow get a shot of T from doing that. It won’t give you any major physical changes apart from being able to ‘lift the heavy thing’, at the very least have more energy.

    Also, and this is significant, but seriously consider a reduction. It might be hard for you, but if you are seriously considering binding, seriously consider a reduction. Surgery is serious, but binding is also serious. Binding can be limiting and damaging. Crippling even. A reduction maybe expensive and draining, but at the very least you’ll be more connected with your body.

    If you’re worried about dating, always remember femmey straight guys do exist. Often they’re very visible in SM circles, consider it.

    But most of all, like Micah said. Bathe in gender lucidity (be that weekend butch if you want ffs). My recommendations are only if you ever feel limited by your biology. As the melodramatic yet godly Fiona Apple once said “go with yourself”. If you start to feel really femmy, doit. If you want to dress in casual masculine clothes, do it, if you want to start dressing like a guy, do it. If you want to dress like a queen do it, high queen or faggy or otherwise, do it. If you start to feel incredibly transy and dysphoric even if you didn’t before, go with it. These things sometimes just take time and a very crisp mirror to pan out. But don’t ever feel like you need to be a guy to be the traits you pride yourself in.

  • Valentine said:

    I have read not one particular article on your weblog. You are a huge lad