Coming Out Stories: To Be Determined
Last week, I wrote about coming out as asexual. But as I mentioned, that isn’t my entire story. The rest of the story is about one of the shortcomings of coming out. Coming out is an important tool for awareness raising and putting faces to marginalized identities. However, it is very hard to come out if you aren’t sure exactly what to come out as.
This is, in some ways, me coming out. I haven’t been out about my gender identity and my romantic orientation because I don’t know how I identify. I talk about it some with my parents and sister, but it is really hard to tell the world that I don’t really know what I am, but it isn’t what they think. Part of the difficulty comes from never actually being able to know what the rest of the world is thinking. Part of the difficulty comes from the ability and willingness of people to turn any trace of uncertainty into proof that my experience isn’t legitimate and isn’t part of an identity.
I don’t know how to talk about my gender identity in simple, concise terms, but I live it every day. I’ve never presented my gender in a stereotypically feminine or masculine way. I’ve always worn what was comfortable to me, which entails mostly baggy clothing, frequently found in the men’s pajama aisle of a local thrift store, frequently plaid, with the occasional skirt thrown in when I am in a swirly mood. My hair hasn’t been longer than 10 inches since eighth grade and I shave it all off and let it grow out again without any further styling in cycles of about a year and a half, which is about how long it takes for me to get bored of growing my hair out. At the very least, I am visibly gender nonconforming.
But what does that translate to in the eyes of others? Is it enough to communicate what I haven’t figured out how to say?
Probably not. I want people to look at me and think ‘human.’ That’s it.
I read a comment somewhere in the AVEN forums, in which the poster said they did not want to be a blank slate, they wanted to have a gender. Maybe it was in the context of a thread asking about whether asexual and agender identities were connected. The comment struck me because I feel the opposite way. I want to be a blank slate. I want to be human, nothing more and nothing less. I want my personality and capabilities to shape people’s expectations of me. And maybe that is all anyone wants, male, female or other: to be judged for who they are and not who society thinks they should be. But I also would like to be a blank slate physically. I would like to not have secondary sex characteristics or reproductive organs. Physically impossible, yes, but desirable, to me, also yes.
No matter how certain I am that I only want to be seen as human, I still wonder why exactly I don’t feel comfortable with the gender I was assigned at birth and therein lies my uncertainty about my gender identity. If women were perceived by society to be as human as men, would I have a problem identifying as a woman? Is my discomfort describing myself as a woman due to the fact that I am not a woman or to the fact that I have bought into the ideas of stereotypical femininity and masculinity and have been unable to develop a definition of woman that fits me?
I took a couple classes in the Women’s and Gender Studies program while I was at college and my favorite professor said the only definition of woman’ that actually holds up to scrutiny is ‘anyone who describes herself as a woman’. That definition puts the concept of womanhood squarely in my lap to define for myself. So why don’t I think I’m a woman? Because I don’t feel like a woman – a girl maybe, a tough girl more so, but not a woman. And why not? Because I’m not old enough? Because I’ve never had sex? Because the idea of bearing children horrifies me? Because I don’t wear make-up or high heels? Because I’m not wise or mature enough? Because I’d get rid of my breasts and period in a heartbeat if I could have them magically disappear? Because I don’t want anyone to think I’m weaker or in need of protection? Because I don’t like the color pink? Because I just want to be seen as a human, nothing more and nothing less?
And if the definition of a woman is anyone who describes herself as a woman, then a man is anyone who describes himself as a man. If I am unsure whether I am a woman or not, I am certain I am not a man. Why? Because I don’t have a penis nor do I desire one. Because I like my emotions, thank you very much. Because I don’t feel like a man.
But if I am not a man and not a woman, where does that leave me? Trans*, genderqueer, agender, androgynous? I don’t currently describe myself by any of those terms. A recent post by Will discusses the debate over the definition of the term transgender. As with the previous two definitions, I think the best definition is that anyone who describes themselves as transgender is transgender. I believe that there is value in having an umbrella term for people outside the gender binary, but I also believe that people who have, are or want to transition(ed/ing) between genders and are living with those challenges deserve a term specific to that experience.
Regardless of what I believe about the importance of having an umbrella term, I don’t think of myself as trans* because using it for myself does feel a bit like appropriating someone else’s identity. I don’t think of myself as genderqueer because I’ve never insisted on gender neutral pronouns. I’m not entirely clear on the difference between agender and androgynous so I don’t use them either.
I think of myself as gender-questioning when I feel a need or desire to label my gender identity. I like the term gender-questioning because it speaks to my own identity and to a greater perspective on gender in general, though I’m not as critical or skeptical of gender as I’d like to be or could be. But most of the time, I just think of my gender identity as something I am uncertain about, something to be determined when the time is right, though it may never be.
I am as uncertain about my romantic orientation.
I know for a fact that I am a hopeless romantic. Most of my favorite books and movies are love stories. I’ve tried to hide it for years, trying not to show people the covers of the books I read. I cultivated an image as a tough girl/person and I didn’t want to let the general public see that my tough attitude is only part of who I am. But here I am: tougher than nails and a sucker for people falling in love.
But if I have seen a ridiculous number of romantic comedies and am constantly reading young adult romances (no sex!) and sometimes tell myself stories about two people falling in love while I’m trying to fall asleep, I never imagine myself as one of the characters. I’ve had one crush type thing (which I might now call a ‘squish,’ an AVEN term for an intense desire to be close friends with someone) and wanted to be kissed once because it would mean I was in a romantic relationship, though all along I knew that we weren’t suited to be a couple and I couldn’t even imagine how being a couple would be different from being friends.
When I first came out as asexual, I thought I was heteroromantic. More and more, I think I’m probably closer to demiromantic or aromantic. Sometimes I think I have only ever wanted to be in a romantic relationship because it has been drilled into my head for so long that romance is the way to happiness, that romantic love is the most important kind of love. The two things that appeal to me about romantic relationships are the right to hold somebody’s hand and having someone to live with long term, someone who would put me first before all other people and obligations. Beyond that, friends and family and places meet all my relationship needs.
So I wonder: do I actually want romance or is its appeal entirely externally manufactured by all the love stories I read and watch? I have not determined how to untangle these two sources of interest in romance. For now, for labeling ease, I describe myself as somewhere on the aromantic spectrum. But I’m not sure, it is still to be determined. I’m okay with that.
Coming Out Stories are semi-regular features posted on Tuesday mornings. If you would like to submit your story to be considered for this feature, please see the submission guidelines.
Great post, Ser. Your ambivalence about terminology really resonates with me.
This is a perfect companion piece to Will’s on semantics. There is such power in labels, and it is important to determine who is wielding that power, and for what purpose. There can be empowerment in labeling yourself, defining yourself in that way. It can also feel far too limiting. While I present as a standard cismale (the large beard and deep voice are particularly suggestive in our culture), I have struggled with gender identity in the past. These two articles really speak to me about the restriction of labeling, when labeling is less liberating.
I think one of the most empowering parts of labeling yourself is usually that it gives you access to a community of people who are dealing with the same issues and that is part of what makes the various border wars such areas of contention. On the other hand, if there doesn’t seem to be a community or a label that fits your experience, trying to fit yourself into a label is certainly restricting rather than empowering.