Struggling to see myself in a sexist, cissexist world hostile to genderqueer femme identities

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Sometimes I imagine myself still that freshman in college crouched over her computer screen as she engages in an instant message conversation with a trans-man who she met on Myspace.  I remember that my heart was beating fast, that pieces of myself were unpacking from a strange, unrecognizable suitcase that had seemed a mirage my whole life.

Eventually, Jake would stop messaging me after we exchanged angry words. Jake was complaining about women, Oh women, he would say, and I’d imagine him sighing exhaustively to boot. He was going through a break up and dealt with it by saying that he didn’t understand women. Because Jake had mentioned that he was bisexual, I suggested that he should date men if he was so sick of women. He responded furiously that I simply did not understand him, that his bisexuality had to do with his sense of gender and where he fit in the world of dating, not anything to do with being sexually attracted to both men and women.  I actually already knew that subtle yet important distinction from the fact that I had come to deeply relate to this online stranger, this person who also became an idea of myself that I could not approach directly. At the time, I blamed myself for the fact that Jake and I never spoke again, but, as more time has passed, I realized that, offended by the sexism of blaming women for his problems, I had lashed out against him rather than offering him a compassionate vision with which to replace his anger.

Annually, I went to see a performance of the Vagina Monologues on campus. It was always one of those magical nights where my heart was beating fast again and my mouth was agape without shame. I couldn’t believe that I would be so privileged as to hear the stories said out loud, rather than to live the story in silence.  After witnessing the incredible performance, I admitted to one of my new friends who was avidly a feminist and queer activist that I had never heard the word clitoris before.

This became my easy narrative.  I came from a high school that, like most high schools, was very conservative with their abstinence-only sex education. They weren’t even comfortable putting the word “sex” into the title, so they called it “health” class instead. But this class was anything but healthy. It pushed us to wait until marriage to have sex, never mind bothering to define what sex was to make sure we knew what not to do. This class was emotionally draining and anxiety provoking. At one point, they brought in a preacher or somebody who acted like a preacher who surrounded himself with caskets on stage and yelled at the top of his lungs that we should imagine ourselves inside of the open casket if we ever thought about having sex before marriage or drinking and driving. Oh, right… because drinking and driving is exactly the same social problem as having teenage sex?

Anyway, it was easy for me to say that I had never heard the word clitoris and that must be what was wrong deep down. That must be the wellspring from which my pain emerged each morning when I woke up in a panic, surrounded by my growing knowledge of a world where one must be man or woman.  Of course, it was sexism’s fault that I didn’t recognize my body, that I had been trained to not recognize the presence of other women. When I was at the Vagina Monologues’ I had freaked out, ushering in years of panic that I blamed on the gender problems of being a woman.

Little did I know that there was more to my struggle than sexism and the problems of being a woman. There was a hidden part of me that didn’t know how to socially exist, that kept focusing on others’ bodies, erasing and rewriting their presence over and over until this repetition created the rough draft on which I would construct my imaginary friends, except they weren’t actually imaginary friends. Yes, they were imaginary, but, no, they were not my friends. In fact, we did not know each other. This became the shape of my deepest emotional pain.

Not only did I revisit my tendency to blame myself, a problem that women are socialized to have, but I also reinterpreted and re-framed an old narrative– the belief that watching the Vagina Monologues’ was difficult for me due to ignorance over female bodies. Yes, sexism and overall cultural ignorance about human sexuality played a big role in my disorienting mesh of emotions; however, I was also very proud of my ability to appreciate self-pleasure. Who cares if I didn’t know the name for clitoris? I sure as hell knew how to stimulate it since I was 3 years-old. Did you know that they have found ultrasound evidence that even fetuses masturbate?

Seeing the Vagina Monologue’s caused me a beautiful pain, stumbling upon a very important voice that I had been repressing most of my life.  It was the voice that taught me to see that I was gender queer, a term that I learned about in college to signify people who identified as gender variant, as not exactly a man or a woman or as both genders.  I felt disgusted with myself for realizing that I was gender queer because I was “too femme” so to speak. I was identified as female at birth and I fit what other people seemed to expect of women. I had been well socialized as a woman and I knew that. Throughout the average day I would witness myself acting as I thought a woman would, especially when it came to self-blame. For example, if I went to the beach with a group of people I would have to nag them about wearing sun-screen because if anyone got sun burned I would wallow in how guilty I felt for not protecting them. I was the kind of person, and I still am, who will spend whole conversations admitting that I don’t know this or that. I talk about my flaws so openly that the line between honesty and self-deprecation blurs.  Because I know this is a problem, I have improved on this issue and have become less annoying to myself and others over the years.

Plus there was my body. Growing up in a small town in the south, male neighbors had proclaimed me a “real looker.” I have a zillion memories of being stopped because of my feminine appearance. I remember coming of age to the male gaze. Look at all these men looking at me! I would think, without any real excitement, though their vision offered to satisfy a need that I very rightly had—the need to see myself, to really see myself.

If I am going to live in a world that will provide space for seeing myself as I am, I need to live in a world that does not diametrically oppose the feminine with gender queerness, especially if you’re labeled female at birth or self-identify with being a woman. I see no reason that we should continue conflating gender identity with gender expression. Yes, some women are feminine. Some women are masculine. Most are both and neither, it seems. There is no reason that being masculine gives you the potential to be less of a woman any more than being feminine gives you the potential to be more of a woman.  I am not any less gender queer than the next person who identifies as gender queer; however, it is important to note that I have a lot of cis-gender privilege because of the way I am perceived as fitting the gender expectations in this society. This helps me gain employment, housing, and a myriad of other privileges that come along with those things.  Because of this privilege, I often worry that I am doing the wrong thing by identifying as gender queer. In fact, I have doubted myself so much that I decided to just call myself a woman so as not to spread misinformation.  You see, it all comes back full circle, the inner-workings of sexism and cissexism pinned against a growing fear that I do not have the option to genuinely express my gender identity in this society. How many times did I tell myself that I was not a woman? And how many of those times could I neatly extract sexism and cissexism from the picture and still have a story to tell? And, yet, sometimes the part that has the power to destroy the whole picture when it goes missing also lacks the power to represent the whole picture by itself.  So I imagine myself that freshman in college with a strange suitcase that keeps unpacking. I can’t believe I’ve draped and worn so many of these estranged pieces on my body. A lot of days I don’t recognize myself, but this pain creates motivation to connect with other people. Through our interactions, I begin to understand my body and myself again. I’m so thankful that radical queer people exist, for without them, how would I ever come to see myself, to really see myself?

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About pennapril

feminist, activist, poet
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