Looking back in my life, I was a rather genderless child, my days were spent reading, playing HeMan and Barbie, swimming and daydreaming. My mom was never prescriptive about my choice in clothing and for the most part I dressed myself in vests, jeans and flannel shirts. I think those carefree days were filled with a easy personal authenticity. Then I hit puberty and the amount of societal pressure to conform became so overwhelming that I lost myself somewhere along the way.
Again I stumble trying to pinpoint a beginning or a place to start talking about my gender journey in retrospect. Things that contributed to my slow journey to self include everything from how much we moved around as a child, to my mother who was a single parent and who did everything to provide for our physical needs but was emotionally absent from large parts of my life, I was a forgotten child raised by stream of family and housekeepers but mostly left to my own devices. I spent most of my childhood lost inside the daydreams. There was very little outside of my own imagination to relate to.
For a while I lived in boarding school. This was the time when puberty came knocking. I learnt about menstruation from the instructions on the side of the pack of pads that my mom had packed in my bag. The conversation about menses with my mom went something like: “Do you know how to use these?” “Yeah, I’ll figure it out.”
“I’ll figure it out” would become my motto. I am the poster child for Fake-It-Till-You-Make-It, but what happens when there is nothing in the world to use to build self identity that actually resonates? In my case, I tried everything and by a process of elimination found parts that almost fit. The women in my life were strong and capable, so I tried to emulate that, fit myself into the mould of hyper femininity. I grew my hair, dyed it, cut it, straightened it, curled it… I fumbled with make up, I shaved my legs, shaved my pits, waxed, plucked and groomed everything that was expected while still feeling like an imposter. I dated men… because that is what was expected. My parents were awkwardly supportive when I went to Pride marches with gay friends. “We’re proud of you and your gay friends, so how gay are you?” “Well I haven’t ever had a girlfriend so I have no idea, I’ll let you know if I figure it out.” That was the single exchange on the matter. About a year after that my step dad arrived at my flat to change a lock only to find my girlfriend living there. That was the beginning and end of me coming out to my family.
Don’t ask, don’t tell. I’ll figure it out.
I recently read and article over on SheWired titled Where Have All The Butches Gone, which describes my experience rather well. The lesbian community was a safe space for me to explore my reality and for the first time I got to experience gender nonconforming people; butch lesbians. I was hooked. Now, the thing is, I never wanted to be a butch lesbian. I never really even wanted to be a lesbian, but the experience of seeing people who straddled gender with confidence was intriguing. I wanted part of that. I wanted to date butches, I wanted to be around butch women, I wanted in. Now at this point I was still firmly brainwashed into believing that gender roles were pretty hard and fast, so what choice did I have if I wanted to date butch people other than be the femme in the Butch/Femme dynamic. Dating in the lesbian community in South Africa was a mess of archaic gender stereotypes… butch and femme go together, you can get away with two lipstick lesbians together… but butch faggotry? UNHEARD OF.
So I found me a nice butch. We settled down, got married, decided to have kids… and that was when shit got real! Pregnancy. The “natural right of passage for woman” is not a fun experience for people with unresolved gender issues hell I don’t think it can even be considered fun for cisgender women. For the first time in my life, the heteronormativity of our butch/femme dynamic grated beyond what I could endure. We fought about my refusal to shave my legs and under arms. I rebelled against the expectations of me as a femme woman. I got angry at people assuming I was heterosexual based on my swollen belly. The never ending questions about my “husband” that when corrected only degenerated into even more invasive questions about the hows of queer reproduction, add to that the fact that I was carrying twins, and the deluge of “do you know if they are boys or girls?” I felt completely invisible in my queer identity. I felt like I no longer existed as anything as a host for the parasites growing inside me. The resentment grew… aggravated further by the thankless and isolating (and icky) experience of breastfeeding. I hardly left the house for the first 4 months of my kids life. My partner and I lived like ships in the night with me awake all night with babies that never slept more than 45 min and one of whom was a colic baby, and my spouse working long hours at a demanding job, desperately trying to be the perfect provider working harder and harder to make sure the babies and I had everything we needed. It is no wonder that post natal depression hit like a freight train.
The thing about rock bottom is that it really helps to strip away the bullshit. When I stopped to look at myself I could no longer recognise myself or my life. When you have no energy to uphold the societal roles and pretences that once were the focus of your identity then you finally get to look at what is left.
- I am not a mother
- I am not a house wife
- I am very queer far beyond identifying as lesbian
- I am not a woman
- I can’t exist in a world where the only way I can get validation is as a woman in feminine presentation
Thanks to insomnia and late night Twitter, I came across language that shook me to my core. For the first time I read about non-binary trans people, gender fluid people, gender queer people. There were many tears shed as I realised that I was not the last dodo, that my experience of gender was not something imaginary or unique to me. First I found other people on Twitter, then I joined the CtrlAltGender Facebook group and started going to the weekly meetings on Wednesday nights. I met other non binary people. I have found a community in which I belong and that fits comfortably for the first time in my life.
Funnily enough, the place of comfort and acceptance in my gender identity that I find myself at now feels very similar to the unencumbered freedom I had as a prepubescent child. I’ve shrugged off two decades of confusion and can just be who I am. I also mostly dress in jeans, vests and flannel shirts now.