“I have always wanted to be both man and woman, to incorporate the strongest and richest parts of my mother and father within/into me – to share valleys and mountains upon my body the way the earth does in hills and peaks.” –Audre Lorde
I didn’t always have such unwavering certainty that I know who I am better than anyone else. I didn’t always have the language to understand who — or “what” — I am. And I didn’t even know that who I am was possible or conceivable.
It wasn’t easy. It has never been easy. It still isn’t easy, but it is a part of who I am.
I feel, and have always felt, both masculine and feminine, sometimes one more heavily than the other, and sometimes an absence of all gender. My gender is comfortable to me but uncomfortable to a lot of people; it makes sense to me, but not to a world fixated on binaries and categories. I have learned, slowly but surely, to love myself and all of my complexities, but it was far from easy.
And if I could go back and hold my younger self with tenderness and the sense of self that I have now, I would.
When I was born, it was decided that I was a “girl.” But it became pretty evident to me early in childhood that the label — and everything that came with it — did not fit me. I wasn’t interested in anything I was “supposed” to be interested in, and I was fortunate enough to have a parent that did not impose gender expectations on me.
And more than simply “not identifying” with the way the world told me I needed to, I felt confused. Would I grow up and become a boy, or keep this same body? It felt like there were many of me, too many to hold in one body. That feeling has never left me.
But as a black kid who was already tomboyish, who was supposed to be a girl and whose first name was “Michal,” I was the target of regular bullying. I was reminded on the daily that I wasn’t “doing” gender right. Everything from the way I walked and talked to how I carried my books wasn’t “lady-like.” (Do they not get that I’m not interested in being “lady-like?”)
The bullying got bad, then worse, then eventually intolerable. I faked being sick so often just to keep from going to school that my mama hardly fell for it anymore.
And when I tried to change my act, when I relaxed my hair and painted my nails and literally practiced walking up and down the hallway, it felt like a performance. Because it was. And my performance did nothing to change the way I was treated. I was called every name imaginable and regularly harassed from elementary and through high school.
I don’t revisit these experiences to evoke sympathy. Unfortunately, my experience is far from unique among trans and gender non-conforming young people of color. Although language and culture are slowly becoming more inclusive, trans people continue to face bullying, violence and harassment.
And while it could be argued (and is probably true) that each and every one of us has qualities that embody “both” genders, actively naming that as an identity in a world fixated on “picking one or the other” is a daily challenge.
How do gender non-conforming people come to self-love and acceptance in a society that is fixated on binaries? How do we explain ourselves to our parents, grandparents and hair stylists?
Queer and trans people of color (QTPOC) have provided me with affirmation, acceptance, and visibility. These communities were the first place that I was given the language to describe my non-binary gender identity and are still an important source of love and solidarity.
Although we still have ongoing work to do to break the binary, it is among QTPOC folk that I have felt most seen and understood. Self-acceptance didn’t occur in a vacuum for me. In a world fixated on binaries, loving myself as a spirit that travels between all energies would have been impossible without radical community.
I am both man and woman; masculine and feminine; and also none of those things.
I love this about myself. I feel empowered in my ability to shape shift and present in whichever way feels good to me at the time. I have learned that there is nothing “wrong” with me, or with the so many of us who identify in different and ever-expanding ways. But there is something wrong with the limited, all-or-nothing views of gender and sexuality that force us into boxes.
The journey to self-love continues as I fight the pressure to “choose” a gender. To me, there is no choice left to make.