It came as such a relief. Like the moment after turning in an exam you were bound to fail, or the halting of your car after you’ve skidded out, I could only exhale and walk away, a little scathed but still in tact.
I looked at myself in the mirror- an old soccer t-shirt and messy dark hair. I was still me, still genderqueer.
Why was I so relieved? I should have been a little heartbroken. I liked this girl, a lot in fact. I planned elaborate dates for her, courted her friends, and cooked a blueberry pancake breakfast. All week I had been dreading the agonizing final conversation, the one that would end a month-long foray into the dreamy world of champaign breakfast dates and rooftop make out sessions. But when she finally confirmed my suspicions that it was a dead deal, I could only smile to myself. My ties had been hanging on the rack for too long.
This girl, I was told, likes girls that “look like girls.” And “lucky” for me, my boyish attire didn’t disguise my pretty little face or giggle-ridden demeanor.
Why do we so often rise to the challenge of gendering ourselves for other people?
Five years ago, when I arrived at college, a blond bob and half a dozen skirts in tow, I had not yet realized the complicated ways I could be sexualized. Awkward in my own skin and closeted, I understood myself to be the “friend” girl—a girl not really pretty enough to date. But my liberal arts college provided the space to test out ties and vests and wingtip shoes. The more I fucked with my gender presentation, the more attention I scored. It went to my head. I could date any girl I wanted, I was certain.
The price of such aesthetic exploration was a strained performance of masculinity, a confusing and painful routine in a community that often demonized visibility queer women as predators. I found friendly banter with women increasingly challenging as many of them came to assume that my polite humor was forceful flirtation. I started to believe in the player status I was given, willing myself to bed with girls that made me uncomfortable.
So when I recently met this girl who wanted to gender me as a lady, I was both flattered and fascinated. It had been so long since someone planned dates for me or held a door. Topping all the time is a lot of work for a little switch like me, and she was more than willing to take those reigns, too.
I had eagerly opened a new door to my gender performance, with room after room to revisit my own femininity. But when I turned around, I found it dead-bolted shut. This girl liked girly girls, and I certainly was not one. If I wore a tie, would she find me unattractive? Should I aim for tighter clothing and more make-up? Dare I even utter the term “genderqueer” to her? How was I going to maintain this? And why was I trying so hard to?
The answer, of course, is that I couldn’t. I suffered without admitting it to myself. And not until this moment, did I realize the cost of that exchange.
How can we guarantee that our gender performance feels transgressive rather than forced? Is reconciliatory rather than abusive? How can we, as genderqueers, navigate sex and love in the nuanced ways we so desperately need? Must we so readily be able to name our needs and desires in order to safely invite partners to tread with us through them? Does such a language even exist?
There are written theories here, but I’m holding them off with an insistent arm; my stated politics never fully answer such personal dilemmas for me. I know that the easiest answer is that these are explorations we must embark on solo. But I’m not exploring my own gender (I don’t think), I’m exploring its presentation and representation. In a world fixated on a gender binary, the challenge is intense.
How can we queer queerness as we know it? Okay, it’s a silly question, and the possible solutions are myriad… Let’s try this one: can I really enjoy fooling around with that cute fag like a fag myself without accidentally silencing something else?