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HOW A PANDEMIC HELPED ME COME INTO MY GENDER IDENTITY

The pandemic allowed me to cultivate joy and explore gender identity without the expectations and gaze of others.

By Mirusha Yogarajah 

The pandemic bought me time. 

I thought about how I, for 26 years, conformed to the desires of the men around me, and about the women who conformed to the desires of men around them. I held my breath reflecting on the ways I contoured my body, spent thousands on clothing, contorted my legs, consumed my food, cried at the sight of my face in the mirror, and arched my back to appease men who’d throw their daily contact lenses on the floor and tower the room with the depth of their voice rather than the depth of their thought. Men with decrepit lungs because they inhaled anything that didn’t force them to confront the longitudinal study of their mother’s work. I thought about how my mother gambled the underbelly of her dignity every time she chose my father. I thought and thought and thought. 

And in the midst of all this, I’ve cultivated joy in the midst of this ongoing pandemic. I no longer yearn for things I don’t have. Instead, I feel whole—I release the expectations that others have of me, I nurture my body to grow as it’s meant to, I carry myself with a slight slouch and embrace rubbing the back of my bare neck. I find joy in the small things, rather than craving an income to assert my worth. I have found the time to write. I have created many collages, torn apart National Geographic magazines that sat in a bag which now held the collective art supplies of the home. I’ve applied to grants with all of my film and story ideas, hoping that someone would have the faith in me I never had. 

I found joy in the small things. I finally acknowledged that I’m a good writer. I moved to a new home with a tender friend and cousin. We painted our kitchen pink and created a personal art gallery of the people who brought variations of love that we chose to incorporate in ourselves. I bought a secondhand writing desk that is adorned with plants and images of myself as a child to remember to foster the love that my parents were unable to provide for me. 

I would hold onto my hair because growing up in Texas as a brown woman meant that my femininity had to be earned, it was not simply granted to me in the way that it is for women who have power, for women whose femininity is assigned to them.

This summer, I spent many hours bouncing around the popcorn pattern of the ceiling with my head rested on the comfort of a pillow, my feet tempered by the weighted blanket that lay on my feet. I was working part-time, giving me plenty of time to ruminate on my life, read on radical compassion, how to practice it for myself and for others. I held my body; I dragged my nails along the skin that intimately cradled my pelvic bones. Purchased a bike from Craigslist and a man named Pierre with a missing tooth dropped it off at my home. He adjusted my seat and let me know there wasn’t a kickstand. The bike was a deep red with chipping paint and chrome that caressed the bike’s outer layers. It made so much noise as I rode and people looked at me as I emerged on the road clunking, but I didn’t care. Who would care when Frank Ocean is singing “Biking” in their ears? My quadriceps gave me the power to sail through Toronto roads with streetcar tracks that were a constant topic of conversation among Toronto bicyclists. I rehomed a dog named Neptune, which is the name of the ancient Roman god of the sea—her teeth resembling the trident that he carries. She sits at my feet and asks to be carried, like a child; she is quite tender with people and has terrible breath.

This was also the summer I buzzed my hair. It was a growing trend as COVID-19 overtook the world. My hair has been intimately interlinked with my femininity, especially in the South Asian context. I vividly remember being around seven years old, and my mother’s sister, brushing my hair and fine-tuning my stray tresses to make a braid. She instilled in me that I should never cut my hair. Though my memories from my childhood are scarce, that has stayed with me for two decades now. And I listened to her. I held my hair in high regard. I would hold onto my hair because growing up in Texas as a brown woman meant that my femininity had to be earned, it was not simply granted to me in the way that it is for women who have power, for women whose femininity is assigned to them.

People could not meticulously organize me and my gender identity, what or who I was, how I was processed by the world.

For Tamil wedding ceremonies, women grow their hair out and are told not to cut it so that the world can witness the ownership of their femininity. My hair is supposed to be long so they can twine jasmine garlands and women’s fingers can stroke through with their fingernails rubbing in the unevenness of my scalp. I buzzed all of that of in affirmation, in fulfilling my long desire to have the option of presenting as androgynous. I buzzed off all my femininity. I welcomed one uncle’s referring to me as “sir”, and reacting in awe when a soft-spoken voice returned. He gave me two vadais for free to compensate. Then he spoke to me about the village my parents came from and I responded in fluent Tamil, a kind surprise for him. 

I walked sidewalks with baggy clothing, stout and slow, tapering on the heels of my dog who always led the way. I walked to Loga’s Corner to eat momos, feeling incredible nurturance of power that I never experienced before. I was a body that could not be categorized in a succinct way. People could not meticulously organize me and my gender identity, what or who I was, how I was processed by the world. That was power, that is the deconstruction of the systems intact, my existence is a refutation of the status quo.

RECOMMENDED: Our Genders Are More Than Our Bodies: Affirming Trans Identity Beyond Appearance

I dress like some of the boys I used to adore as a queer brown child. I dress in structured shirts, with fitted black or gray pants, with Vans shoes of some sort. I wear a bright orange toque on the days that my head needs a hug, and I wear a gold chain with a pendant that adorns the initials of my mother’s name and an evil eye. My mother purses her lips when she witnesses my transition from a long-haired, peasant dress adorning woman, to what I am now. But she never says anything, because she knows I’m happy because I take up space, I find power in misgendering, I like boys and girls and my mother knows, I find comfort in others’ touch, I cross my legs and seek love in conversations with strangers behind a mask because they let me encounter them in their lifetime, even briefly. I am open. I am love. I am free. 

Mirusha Yogarajah is a Tamil kid who writes to heal. They like Bananagrams, cheese plates, and their friends.

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