By Carla Peña
AFO Content Writer
As a nonbinary woman who is masculine of center, I have had to negotiate gender identity and expression since I was young. I am a cissex female, meaning I was assigned female at birth, and though I did not necessarily come of age at odds with that assignment, I felt limited and restricted in who I was and who I could be because of it. When I spoke my mind to the adults around me, I was told, ‘little girls are to be seen, not heard.’ When I sat with my legs apart, my father invented a hand signal that would mean I’d have to cross them, and sit like a ‘lady.’ When I expressed anger or a difference of opinion passionately, I was labeled aggressive. I negotiated with gender for as long as I could until I was finally stopped at the border of adolescence and policed heavily by those around me. I was told I had to grow up and start acting like a woman -- and that meant I needed to stop ‘hiding’ my body in baggy clothes and start showcasing myself so that cishet men would find me attractive. It was never explicitly stated, but it became clear to me that my value was in my body and my attractiveness. And if that’s what it meant to be a woman, well, I wanted no part of it. But as an adolescent, I complied, knowing for myself that I wanted something different.
It’s interesting to note that for sometime in my coming out process, gender and sexuality overlapped in a way that made it hard for me to explore each independently of the other. I came out as gay when I was 21 years old. And once I had stepped out from the closet in which I had kept myself for fear of rejection, I found the freedom at long last to just ‘be.’ I had already relegated myself to the margins of womanhood by being gay, and by embracing my masculinity, I got to redefine what womanhood was to me. I was born into this body, and this was my life, so it was only right I honor my truth in whatever ways felt right. And for me, embracing my masculinity returned me to my power. Power over who could view my body and all its curves. Power in presenting myself out of the binary box of what a woman should look and act like. I could be whoever the fuck I wanted to be because only I had ownership over my body and life. That was a lesson long fought for. It reminds me of Nayyirah Waheed’s words: “I am mine before I am ever anyone else’s.” Damn right I am.
Alas, I conflated gender and sexuality for a long time. I felt that my being gay meant I was gay this way (i.e. masculine of center/butch/stud/boi insert other iterations of masculinity here). I explored what these identities meant for me as they came up; there is always intersection between the identities we hold. With respect to gender and sexuality, there is room to explore both as connected, and each separately as well. Which brings me back to my original point, as I find myself in the second year of my gender exploration, or interrogation. For the first time in my life, living in a city that is the queerest (in every sense of the word and in the best sense) I have ever lived in, I find myself feeling more free to explore the ways in which I express my gender and the ways in which I can choose to identify. This also coincides with the contemporaneous culture shift we find ourselves in around gender and sexuality politics: i.e. the ever-evolving vocabulary we have to define ourselves however we feel fit, the ubiquitous use of gender-neutral pronouns, more mainstream conversations around polyamory, the belief and dissemination of gender and sexuality on a spectrum, etc. Now at 33 years old, I have reopened the door on gender identity, one that I once closed at the age of 9.
At around age 9-10, I had experimented with what it might be like to be a ‘boy,’ and I brought this topic up to my mother, too. I remember telling her that I didn’t know if I wanted to be a ‘boy’ or a ‘girl’ and she lovingly and supportively suggested I make a list of pros and cons. And as I sat at the kitchen table in our apartment in Queens, I had a feeling of simultaneous relief and anxiety -- relief that my mother hadn’t scolded me and anxiety because a part of me wanted to pick ‘boy’ but knew deep down I couldn’t. 24 years later, this conversation has made its way from the dark recesses of my memories to the forefront of my mind. Confronted with visibly queer folks in a way that is normalized and just plainly a part of the fabric of the city here in the Bay, I have felt less like an anomaly, and more like just another person. And because of that, I feel freer than I ever have. My gym is queer, my barber is queer, my city is queer, my neighbors are queer, and my workplace is queer -- intentionally so -- and I wish this were the norm for most people.
And because of this, the question of my gender identity has become something I can no longer ignore. The more I interrogate my gender, the more I question what is innate to me and what is external. I have always desired a more masculine appearance in my physique and have very recently started thinking about top surgery. For years, I have resented the looks of contempt I often receive for my appearance and the assumptions people make about it. Does my recent desire for top surgery have to do with wanting to look less like a ‘woman trying to be a man’ or just wanting to look cis masculine? I resent that either might be part of it. But I also connect to my body in a way that is less cis feminine and more trans masculine and I cannot reconcile what that means for me physically.
I don’t hate my body or believe that I am in the wrong one. But what I picture in my mind, as my ideal, seems to drift farther and farther away from our society’s conceptions of cis womanhood. Then, this begs the question, what is the difference between dysphoria and fantasy? Does it matter? Is one a greater reason over the other to put myself under for surgery? Will I feel more aligned with my gender identity if I do change myself physically, or will I feel like I betrayed a body that has been good to me, one in which I have almost always felt at home? I am still not sure. I don’t know when, if ever, I will be. All I know right now is that gender got me all kinds of fucked up.
Be honest to yourself about what you want: out of life, to eat, to feel, to do in this world. Honor whatever it is, without judgment. Give yourself whatever it is you need. This is a process that takes time. It is the process of getting to know yourself, getting to know your body – without judgments or assumptions – learning to let all the parts of you be what they are.
Face them, hear them, know them, and find peace in letting them be.
Many of us work against ourselves – denying us pleasure, fulfillment, and fullness. This is no way to find peace. We are working for peace within our bodies and ourselves to reconnect us to our power center. We are learning how to listen to ourselves and honor our needs and desires.
Be kind, be gentle, be love, be open.
Enjoy your body.