“I find that I fail miserably at being a guy, whether it’s with butches or transmen or any other masculine-identified people. I feel more comfortable with femmes of any gender, but I don’t quite present or feel feminine enough to call myself a femme.” (Nico Dacumos from the essay “All Mixed Up With No Place to Go: Inhabiting Mixed Consciousness On The Margins” in Nobody Passes: Rejecting the Rules of Gender and Conformity ed. Mattilda.)
My five-year-old niece is sitting on my bed as I pack for a trip. The topic of gender comes up when I pull out a skirt and fold it onto the stack of clothes coming with me.
“You’re a girl,” she says.
“Sometimes,” I reply. “Well, not really. I’m genderqueer.”
“Are you a boy?”
“No… I’m genderqueer.”
“It means I’m not a girl or a boy. Sometimes I’m more like a girl or more like a boy, but I’m not either of them.”
“But do you have private parts like a girl?”
“Then you’re a girl?”
“Then what are you?”
“I’m genderqueer … ”
The conversation trails off. She’s confused, and I’m not sure what to say. I’m just genderqueer, and that’s the only word I have for it. It’s not the right word for a five-year-old, though. It doesn’t mean anything to her. And I can’t explain it because, like Nico Dacumos in the quote above, I don’t really fit into either category and I’m not sure what language to use to describe myself. I just am this weird mixed thing, and it feels wrong to deny it but it doesn’t really feel right when I describe it because I don’t really know what it is.
Dacumos writes, “The problem with being everything is that it mostly gets me a whole lot of nothing. In theory I should be able to claim all the identities and related spaces … but we all know that’s not true. Instead I find myself isolated. And a liar.”
Although I know that I do not share all of Dacumos’ identity categories (most relevantly in trying to relate to the essay, I am not mixed-race), the essay eloquently articulates my own struggle with mixedness. Dacumos does not claim a genderqueer identity, but writes about being mixed-gender in a way that resonates with my own performance and experience of gender.
Writing about the experience of being mixed in a post-secondary institution, Dacumos describes the loneliness of not fitting into non-mixed spaces, and the difficulty of interacting with others in ways that are true to the mixed identity but still comprehensible to someone who is not mixed. Where are the elders and the mentors, where are the spaces that do not demand some form of passing? It is lonely and exhausting.
I have been lucky to find elders such as genderqueer porn performer, activist and performance artist Jiz Lee, and in writing like the anthology Dacumos’ essay is in. I am also lucky enough to have friends who are equally mixed and mixed-up, and to be part of a community (in Possibilities) that is gender-inclusive. I still sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time talking about what it means to be genderqueer, struggling to find language that articulates what I am – my mixedness that does not cross the gender binary to land me on the other side, but also does not stay fixed to my biological sex.
For the most part, these points of connection and experiences of community happen outside of my academic life. Although I am out as genderqueer in my classes and with my colleagues and professors, I don’t find much community in academic spaces. This may be because, as Dacumos writes, “[m]ost transgender scholarship leaves little room for groups of people or ways of being that do not fit a narrow definition of what is scholarly enough or trans-gressive enough. Transgender masculine politic also shuts out transgender women from these queer and feminist academic circles: Misogyny among privileged gay and/or straight male academics actively excludes transgender women; transphobia among feminist academics casts transgender women as wolves in sheep’s clothing.”
Transmisogyny is an issue that seems to be ignored in many academic spaces. While transmasculinity is often praised, transfemininity is ignored or vilified. I want my performance of gender to be part of my anti-oppressive activism, but I find myself wary of performing any kind of femmeness – I am afraid that a skirt invalidates my genderqueer identity because it aligns too easily with my biological sex. This fear of femme identification seems, to me, to be an elephant in the room in many queer and feminist spaces.
Last year at the first annual Possibilities BiBQ, both of my niephlings* wore “proud of my genderqueer aunt” shirts that my sibling made them. And they both have an amazing acceptance of the fact that sometimes girls have penises and sometimes boys have vaginas. That’s a long step further than a lot of adults I know! But how do I talk with them about my gender, which is not simply a reverse of the expected but is this other, more amorphous thing? How do I describe my mixedness?
Never mind description, I don’t even know how to dress as a genderqueer person. And clothes are important, I think. They reflect who you are, or at least they can. I land on jeans and t-shirts most of the time (my t-shirt collection is nerdy and awesome, if I do say so myself). It’s a gender-neutral look, and one that reflects my nerdy self, and often my queer and feminist self also. But it’s not really genderqueer. And because my face is quite feminine, people read me as a woman, even in my gender-neutral attire.
So I don’t have the right clothes to signal my gender identity, and I don’t have the right language, and I just don’t know what to do about it. Like Dacumos, “I will continue to search for alliances with those who foreground the concerns of femmes and feminine-identified people while also creating new options for enacting masculinities.” And I will continue to inhabit this strange mixed space that includes my femme days and my own soft masculinity.
I’m out, but it’s a constant and frustrating process of being and coming out. Bathrooms, forms, confused five-year-olds …
I don’t have an answer for this. Genderqueer is the word for what I am, but it’s not common enough yet for people to be able to understand it. And honestly, even I am confused about what it means. I don’t have a template for the performance of genderqueerness, and I’m not a trailblazer. I just am what I am, but I don’t really know what that means.
Four years ago I went to San Francisco on my own. I walked into the Good Vibrations store on Valencia, and I tried on a couple harnesses over my pants. I bought the one that fit the best, and I bought a pack-and-play dildo to wear with it. I felt like my gender identity was shifting – something was happening that I had no words for and no understanding of. The discomfort I had always felt with some aspects of myself as a “woman” was intensifying, and when I dressed in drag, something just… shifted. Fell into place. It took years to figure out that I wasn’t transgender, and I wasn’t cisgender, I was this other thing.
Dacumos writes, “I find myself doing activism and making radical change in the world in the ways I have always wanted. I find myself becoming the elder that I always hoped to find.”
My goal is to also become the elder I had hoped to find. As an academic, I want to figure out how to break open space for mixedness in academic settings, to bring the community that I have found outside of the institution in with me.
As the anthology says, nobody passes. Nobody actually fits into the tidy binaries. We just have to figure out how to be okay with that, and how to talk about it in ways that are clear, inclusive and understandable.
*There is no gender-neutral term of the children of your sibling, so I have coined “neiphling.” Although both my niece and my nephew seem, at this point in their lives, to be cisgender, I don’t see the benefit of constantly reinforcing their assumed gender identity, and constantly reinforcing that they are different – niece/nephew, girl/boy – in every single reference to them. This is my own attempt to break open some space for non-normativity in my language. Also, it’s cute.