It’s Christmas, the only holiday when my mother’s family gets together–despite the fact that most of us aren’t even remotely Christian. My older sibling, my younger sister and I sit in my grandmother’s kitchen, enjoying her Southern hospitality in her home in upstate New York. It’s the first time we’ve seen each other in months. “The girls are in the kitchen,” I hear my aunt tell her sister, and I exchange a weary look with my older sibling. I am once again reminded just how harmful holidays can be.
For roughly 18 and a half years of my life I identified as a woman. When I was 16 or 17 my older sibling came out as genderfluid and began using they/them pronouns. It took me two years to finally understand what that meant. I like to joke now that in our family, they got all the gender and I got none of it.
About halfway through my first semester at Vassar I began using both she/her and they/them pronouns. I was questioning the role that gender played in my life but wasn’t quite ready to renounce it altogether. To be honest, I was afraid. In my experience, there seemed to be a certain level of commitment to labels in the queer community where if you start identifying a particular way, the only way to go is further from the “norm.” It’s like baby steps of identity. First you’re straight. Then you question a little and you’re bisexual. Then you decide to fuck it and go “full-blown gay.” I can’t stand the mandatory escalation that seems to exist. Not only does it create a hesitancy in terms of coming out, it perpetuates the erasure of an “in-between stage” such as the very real and valid identity of bisexual or questioning. What if I started claiming to be non-binary and then realized I was wrong? I’m wrong a lot, and with something as fluid and complex as gender, I was clueless. Sometimes I still am.
With the help and support of my friends (and some family), I came out publicly as agender during the second semester of my freshman year. For me, that was the easy part. The hard part was convincing people that “agender” actually exists. Similar to the reception of asexuality, I’ve found that people have a hard time understanding my general lack of gender and apathy towards any form of gender expression. People can at least understand trans identities and gender fluidity but bi- and agender is a mystery to most. Why would anyone want to exist outside of gender? Furthermore, I look like I’m a “woman”–whatever that means. But why is that an excuse for misgendering me? What makes my characteristics so inherently…“female?”
I have never really felt comfortable with the social pressures of being a “woman.” Heterosexuality felt compulsory while I was identifying as a woman, even if I stressed that I was pansexual. It hurt. When someone looked at me and said “girl,” I felt wrong. I understand that this stems from oppressive socially constructed gender roles taught to us from a young age but fuck, I felt so weird as a girl. The label made no sense to me. I didn’t get why I had to wear it around like it was the only thing that mattered about me. I always questioned why that was the first thing anyone saw in me.
I’m not trying to belittle the label of woman. I’ve known so many strong and vibrant women who have been a part of my life: my mom, my best friends, my little sister. They continue to baffle and awe me to this day. I just never felt so comfortable with the title. I couldn’t handle that burden. Now every time I’m called “miss” or “she,” it’s like a pang in my soul.
I don’t know if I can explain the toxicity of being misgendered. It’s like…being forced to eat a food that you know will make you sick. You’re hungry–starving even–and all anyone has to offer you is this food that you know will make your stomach hurt, but they give it to you anyway, and you eat it. Because that’s easier than asking them not to give you that food. It’s seems silly, don’t you think? But the fear of inconveniencing people has led to many painful days for me. I can’t safely correct someone outside of the Vassar bubble because who knows how they’ll react? Will they be fine with it? Will they think I’m a product of PC culture, a liberal whiny brat who just doesn’t like labels and wants to make their life harder? I can’t take that gamble.
The most frustrating part is the way those closest to you can’t seem to recognize your identity. They know your pronouns. They know your reasons. They forget sometimes, okay. But when it happens over and over, it gets hard. You stop wanting to be around them because every time you’re with them, every time you correct them, it hurts a little more. It makes you a little more angry. And I don’t want to be angry. I just want to exist as a human being and not have to tell you what to call me over and over and over again. I just want some peace of mind when I go home to the ones who love me, who understand non-binary and trans but can’t seem to see me that way. I want to exist in their minds. It’s a part of me they can’t seem to respect. I just want to be. Free from the toxicity of being mislabeled, misjudged, misread and out of place.