One thing I am discovering in my forties is that you are never too old to blink in amazement and say, “Wait. There’s a fuckin’ word for that?”
There’s a word for how not quite right I’ve felt in my own body, as long as people were defaulting to calling that body female. There’s a word for the mental shrug I’d make every time someone would say, “Well, of course, you’re a woman.” There’s a word for why, for the most part, I have unconsciously avoided fully gendering myself in biographies and profiles. There’s a word for the days I feel femme and glamorous and a word for the days when I’m more comfortable sliding towards the more masculine end of the gender spectrum.
There’s. A word. For that. For all of that.
Growing up with big boobs and broad shoulders, strong facial features and bodily curves, there’s always been that under-lurking sense of wait, no, that’s not quite right when I would be checked off as female on forms, or shuffled into the girls’ line for anything. I was a girl. I had the equipment, so to speak, the F on my birth certificate, all that. But I was a girl with a deep-rooted, persistent thought: I’m not a girl. Not all the time.
I just never had the vocabulary to identify it.
In the last few years, I’ve heard the terms genderqueer, genderfluid, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and so forth. I’ve seen people identify as all of these things online, and for a long time, it never occurred to apply any of these concepts to myself. Admittedly, for much of that long time, I had bigger fish to fry with my mental health, recovering from major emotional trauma, massive life upheavals, and oh, right, writing books. All that. I was too busy/tired/confused to understand that it meant something that I couldn’t settle into one queer female identity as a butch or a femme.
It took a while for me to untangle my gender identity and presentation from my sexuality, you see – some people are butch and some are femme, and it is directly linked to their sexual identity, but that’s not how it is for me. We’ve just all been raised to think gender and sexuality are intertwined and it takes a lot of work to sort out that this isn’t necessarily the case. For me, anyway. The community under the big rainbow umbrella is not a monolith, and I can only speak for myself.
Enter my re-introduction to the world of drag. Drag queens were the people who provided my first truly positive non-sexual experiences in the queer community when I was a wee baby bisexual awkwardly making my way out into the big gay world in the late 90s, so of course it makes sense that it would be drag queens that drove home to me that yes! It did mean something that I had always felt a little unattached to either end of the gender binary!
Among the many, many drag queens that were suddenly all over my Instagram Explore page earlier this year was an Australian queen named Courtney Act (aka Shane Jenek), who had competed on Drag Race (in the same season as BenDeLaCreme, incidentally, so season 6 of RuPaul’s Drag Race has certainly had some kind of formative influence on my recent life for some reason, and I am just rolling with it at this point), and in 2018 was appearing on Celebrity Big Brother in the UK. Courtney identifies as genderqueer, and proved to be quite the educational force in the Big Brother house. The video on this Radio Times page is the one I stumbled across on my Instagram Explore page. And while it is imperfect (not bad for an off-the-cuff discussion on a complicated topic, but some of the conversation around India Willoughby’s transition made me uncomfortable because it felt a bit intrusive as she was not in the room, so there’s your heads up), watching Courtney/Shane explain their identity on the gender spectrum was like having a great big spotlight bulb going on over my head,
Oh, is what I remember thinking. Oh. You can do that? You can be that? That’s a thing?
Yes! Yes, you can! Yes, it is!
So much began to fall into place for me at that moment. Is still falling into place, months later. But that was absolutely the defining moment, the puzzle piece I needed to actually begin feeling comfortable in my body, in my skin. I got it.
And I wanted to embrace it.
So first, I went out and got a haircut. An undercut, which I had been dithering about getting for a few years. I made an appointment and marched into the salon with shaking hands and knees and sat there in astonishment as for the first time in my life, a buzzing pair of clippers touched my head and sheared off a good half of my hair.
That was the first night I had the haircut. I was going to a drag show (to see Milk perform, point of fact, so again with the RPDR season 6 being of some kind of intrinsic importance in my life at a really specific time!!!), so I glammed up. But pretty soon I was gleefully exploring the tomboy side of things in a way I never felt able to do before.
This is amazing to me because before, on the days I felt more boyish, it disappointed me that I couldn’t figure out how to present as such and feel good about it. The undercut totally changed that for me. It affords me the flexibility of indulging my tomboy side when I’m feeling it, and for that look to match how I feel in a way that I couldn’t manage when I just had all long hair. I don’t look like a “guy,” no, but that isn’t the point (because I’m not a guy), I’m just not pegging the needle 100% on the “gal” end of the spectrum, either, and that makes me happy.
But I do still have my ultra-femme days –
And I have days that fall somewhere in the sort-of middle for me.
One of the really amazing things about allowing myself to explore my gender identity and presentation was coming to understand that in the past, when I have gone to events, performed in concerts, done book signings, attended special occasions or church, etc – when I have done this, I have always gone out in what is unmistakably full-on ultra-high-femme drag, and it has been exactly that: drag. Or more precisely, it’s always 100% been performative armor. I would wear that dress, those heels, the makeup, and I would be Public Facing Lissa, and it was a way for me to cope with my social anxiety and stage fright. That Lissa is the extroverted, confident, funny and competent version of myself, and that’s who I have put on when I needed to be A Public Figure or A Nice Girl From A Good Family. She’s a costume, a persona – but there’s so much of me in her! She isn’t inauthentic! She’s just all the best parts of girl-me made fit for public consumption. And she feels a lot like an obligation. I am deadly serious when I say that getting ready as Public Facing Lissa has felt very, very much like I’m getting ready for Halloween.
Imagine my surprise to find out, to really discover, that there were women and girls and other people in the world who enjoy doing the “pretty” thing! It’s not armor or a costume for them! They choose to spend the time on their makeup and hair not because they have to, but because they genuinely enjoy the result. That never really twigged for me before.
Freed of my tethers to the female end of the gender binary, I suddenly know what it’s like to put on makeup and stick a flower in my hair just because I feel like being pretty that day. It does not feel like a costume or an obligation or any sort of gender confirmation thing, it finally just feels like I’m looking how I want to look at that moment. I’ve seen other AFAB non-binary folks marvel about this online, and it’s honestly just such a fucking revelation. Being pretty feels like fun in a way it never was before! It’s almost a luxury, point of fact.
But I still get to present more boyishly when I feel like it, and that is also fun! And frankly such a fucking relief!
I am, as the marvelous non-binary drag queen Jinkx Monsoon says in their song “The Gender Binary Blues,” Just. Me.
(that song is where the title of this post comes from, by the by, it’s full of great lines and I had trouble settling on the one…also Jinkx’s entire “The Ginger Snapped” album – that’s a Spotify link! – is fantastic and I love it)
Now, you know, all this said, I have a long way to go in my explorations. I know a lot more about myself: that I don’t identify as a gal, but I’m also not a guy. I’m not transgender (although some non-binary and other gender non-conforming folks do identify as such), I don’t experience extreme dysphoria. I just more or less feel unattached to gender. I’m a person in a body with certain characteristics that society says should define who and what I am, and I say, nope.
But I am also 41 years old. While it is wonderful to discover there’s a word – several words, even! – to describe my general befuddled disconnect from my birth-assigned gender, I’m also middle-aged and used to answering to she/her pronouns, which has been a source of confusion. If I don’t want to identify as a woman or female but feel more or less fine with she/her pronouns, then what does that mean? Yet I don’t feel all-in for they/them pronouns for myself just now, or for any of the other creative alternatives I’ve seen people use. So that’s something I’m still mulling over.
And can I use the word lesbian to identify myself as a person who prefers women, if I’m not completely identifying as a woman myself? Should I stick to identifying as queer to cover all of it, gender and sexual identity, since also, sometimes I do still find myself appreciative of the charms of the male persuasion? And of other gender non-conforming people? I know that language, like gender, is a social construct, but I still need to reconcile some things. I think about all of this a lot.
Speaking of sexual identity, oh, giggles. With all of this self-examination has come a certain amount of something I can only describe as exasperation. Because, like, great, being a fat and eccentric queer person with mental problems and trust issues didn’t make dating difficult enough, let’s add gender questions to the mix! Oh, rapture. Life is fun.
Even with all of that, though. Even with it.
It’s still. Such. A. Relief! That there is a word for me.
That’s the word I felt fit best, that’s the one I like.
Non-binary. Also known as, just me.