A few weeks ago, I stood in front of a room and asked eleven high schoolers to think of one way in which they were masculine and one way in which they were feminine. I was met with blank stares and some giggles.
“Well,” I said, “let’s take me for example. I wear a beard, which people would probably consider to be masculine. But I also cross my legs when I sit and I’m really expressive with my voice, which people sometimes consider to be feminine.” I popped my leg behind me and added, “Oh, and I do that!”
I suddenly felt naked. Here I was, revealing something to my kids which I had barely acknowledged to myself: I’ve never been comfortable being a man. Heck, I don’t even use the word “man” to describe myself–I still call myself a “boy” even though I’m nearly twenty-five and, like I said, wear a beard most of the time.My discomfort with masculinity is equal parts insecurity, jealousy, frustration, and guilt. I feel insecure because I’ve never felt masculine enough. I feel jealous because manly men seem so cool, so confident, so comfortable. I feel frustrated because for my entire life, I have been pressured into abandoning anything vaguely feminine about myself. And I feel guilty because being a boy has afforded me a lot of societal advantage. I’m the beneficiary of sexism, whether I want to be or not.
The gender I was assigned at birth feels like a cage. Often, the body I was born into feels like one, too. I nearly gave myself an eating disorder once, when I decided I needed to gain muscle in order to feel attractive. Another time, I spent an evening crying because I would never be able to be pregnant and give birth.
So I guess I’m gender-ambivalent, or perhaps just begrudgingly cis. But I know I’m not alone. Most of my friends–cis and trans alike–spend a lot of time struggling with the fact that their bodies, brains, and personalities feel all wrong. We put a lot of energy changing our affectations, our clothes, our bodies, and our pronouns, searching for something that fits. And some of us find it, but some of us don’t. Sometimes the search just makes us feel worse.The point of my “one feminine trait, one masculine trait” exercise was to show my students that they were allowed to express the full range of expression, no matter what gender they identified as. But I had unwittingly stumbled onto a more difficult question: if your gender isn’t determined by your adherence to masculine or feminine norms, and it’s also not determined by your body… what is it determined by?
Another anecdote from my sex ed class. On the first day of class, I always play “Four Corners” with my students. Here’s how it works: In each corner of the room, I tape up a poster that states, “I agree,” “I disagree,” “I don’t care,” or, “This topic makes me uncomfortable.” Then, I read off a series of statements–some controversial and some not so much–and ask my students to travel to the corner of the room that best describes their reaction.
One of the statements is, “Transgender people and gay people are born that way.” Every time I’ve done this activity, the entire class floats to the corner of the room marked, “I agree.” They seem proud of themselves for being so liberal, for knowing what I want them to say.But there actually isn’t any good evidence that gay people and trans people are born that way. All of the research that’s been done on the genetic determinants of sexuality and gender has either been experimentally flawed or grossly dismissive of people whose identities don’t fall into clear “man/woman” and “straight/gay” categories. When I tell my students about this, they look confused, as though I’ve just said that queer people don’t deserve respect or human rights. But I’m actually saying the opposite: everybody deserves respect, simply for surviving through the misery of being forced to identify as any gender or sexuality. How we cope with the cards we’re dealt–the gender we’re assigned at birth, the bodies we find ourselves attracted to–is just that: coping.
I don’t mean to say that anybody chooses their gender or sexuality. It’s obviously not that simple. I certainly didn’t choose to be gay, but here I am. And I definitely didn’t choose to be a boy–a doctor (and my parents, and society) decided that before I even knew what “boy” meant. All I mean is that all of my friends are doing the best we can to figure out how to be happy, healthy, and harmless in a world that doesn’t make it very easy. For some of us, this means transitioning and/or changing our pronouns. For others, it means carving out a comfortable-ish space within our assigned genders.
So if you’re somebody who is gender ambivalent or still figuring things out, take heart. You’re not broken, deranged, or even unusual. You’ve just stumbled upon the secret: gender sucks and nothing is simple.
[Note: If you do think you’re trans and want resources about how to seek gender-affirming health care, please contact me and I’ll try to get you the info you need or connect you with folks who can!]