Oh, to grab the face of a younger me, and shout to her that the expression of femininity is neither scarce nor reserved for any one form, nor is it an experience to be earned with good looks and soft thoughts. That to feel delicate, to feel gentle, to feel desirable…these are all things which you - yes, you! in all of your strong-willed, boyish glory - are allowed to have.
To a younger me, femininity was epitomized by softness. An ability to waltz through life with an infectious daintiness that might preclude me from any scrutiny of perceptible incompetence. It was carefree.
But I was never deserving - my reality was one that felt clumsy, cerebral, and frankly ugly. I could never muster any semblance of innocence or naïveté - my brain was constantly bubbling with information, intensity, exhaustive curiosity. I was obsessed with ideas and helplessly indifferent to “people things”.
I was raised in a religious environment that applauded adherence to strong gender roles, and made me feel enormously guilty for constantly missing the mark. I felt myself an imposter every time I attempted to look or feel “womanly”. It all felt so wrong, so out of place. I squirmed in dresses, scowled at boy-craze, and cowered at cosmetics. I hated how I looked. I hated how I felt.
In my early teenage years, I grew hysterical when faced with the non-negotiable reality of puberty, sickened by the thought that the curse of womanhood might fall upon me. I harbored a palpable jealousy for the pretty girls who seemed unphased by the responsibility of beauty, while I was left to face the gremlin of a woman staring me down in the mirror.
I clung heavily to my masculinity, because it allowed me to value myself by what I could do rather than by how I could present. I knew my strengths - it was easy being the smartest, hardest working, most competitive. But when it came to looks, I shrunk myself. If I thought like a boy and acted like a boy, I would look like one too.
Feminine attire become entirely off limits - I wore only baggy sports clothing and refused to brush my hair. When my parents weren’t around, I researched breast reduction surgeries for my barely AA cups. I was terrified.
To visibly resign to my gendered fate, I feared, would mean an instant sacrifice of my masculine self-worth. No longer could I be taken for an output machine, but instead a bottom tier contender in the pageant of feminine elegance.
When it came to friendships, I cherished the company of men and felt helplessly equipped to engage with women. In truth, I harbored some silent fear that I might actually relate to them. But I was not allowed to feel feminine, I decided, because I had not been dealt the requisite cards to do so. I lacked true respect for most women, because I lacked respect for myself as a woman.
Even with age and separation from my childhood religion, my gender issues didn’t resolve themselves; they just became a thing of complacency. My fears of physical femininity never came to much fruition (my petite, boyish build stuck around) and so I resigned myself to just being a little different. I didn’t date in high school, and generally avoided situations that required me to think about my gender any more than I’d like. It allowed me to be content although I had unresolved baggage.
That would be a pretty disappointing end to the story, if it were the end to the story.
The resolution came, dear reader, but it didn’t come quickly. It took leaving the house, two good but short-lived relationships, and a move across the country to finally reckon with this tucked away baggage.
It was a newly single, attraction confused, 19-going-on-20 version of me that finally gave the queer community a chance. God was it a breath of fresh air.
The culture that raised me had taught me to shun the "loud, label-obsessed" community for its “hypersexual, attention seeking” ways. But, in acknowledging my own queerness, I came to realize that the majority of other queer folks were just like me - atypical people looking for spaces to be the way they felt without further explanation.
And so, while I initially sought out queer spaces in an attempt to understand my sexuality, I ended up mostly just figuring out how to reckon with the rest of the person I was.
Queer spaces made me think about my own labels less by first learning to think about others’ less. In a room of queer people, I felt myself starting to meet people as they came, rather than trying to fit them into a box to decide how I could interact with them.
Queer spaces healed my relationship with women. I found people identifying as women embracing more masculinity than me, more femininity than me, and everything in between. I learned to be curious about it, rather than feel threatened by it. There was always room enough for each of us to be our own version of a “woman”. Indeed, I’ve since come to quite enjoy the company of women - platonic, romantic, and otherwise.
I disentangled gender from the notion of sexuality, and found myself without the pressure to play out sexualized dynamics with men because it was a role I had to play if I wanted to feel “feminine”. I didn’t need to put on an act. I realized that there was a place for the way I felt, and it had nothing to do with how I identified and who I was attracted to.
So here I am, pretty damn queer. This discussion isn’t meant to have a perfectly buttoned up conclusion. As far as I am concerned, I know more about myself than ever before and less than I ever will, and I think that’s great. I am still figuring out what my life path will look like, and who will accompany me on it. I can hardly begin to imagine all of the interesting people i’ll meet and thoughts i’ll think along the way.
I am attracted to bright, curious minds, and quite proud of my own. I dress as I please, and act as I wish. I seek less validation, and keep better company as a consequence.
I don’t harbor any ill will for the people and systems that raised me, they were doing what they understood to be right and good. There are many useful things I learned from those times (which I may very well articulate in future writings)...my gender expression was simply not one of them.