I am not an expert on gender expression. I think I can explain most of the common terms and maybe have had more gender diverse people in my life than some, but this does not make me an expert. At the end of the day, the only gender experience I am an expert on is my own. Even then, I didn’t have a word to define my own gender experience until the summer before last.
It didn’t change my life or revolutionize my human experience to have a name, but it was a relief. There was a rushing sort of gratitude that I am not the only one who feels that their gender changes throughout the day. There are enough people like me that someone bothered to invent the term: gender fluid. There is of course some overlap in terms. I had previously, in my adult life, used the term genderqueer (not feeling a good match for your assigned gender), or non-binary (which means not feeling a fit for either of the two mainstream gender choices.) but neither of those felt like coming home the way the term gender fluid fit.
When I was a kid, the only terms I knew to define gender, were girl and boy. In nursery school, I don’t remember it mattering a lot, but come kindergarten the question started, “are you a girl or a boy?” I knew what I had been told about my biology, but I wasn’t sure that it felt like the right answer. I don’t honestly remember the answer I gave in kindergarten, but I know by grade 1, I was a boy.
It wasn’t actually a hard choice, if the only options were girl and boy obviously I would make the choice that would allow me more freedom and fun. Boys could climb trees, wrestle, and take their shirts off when it was hot outside. Boys didn’t need neat writing, they were allowed to goof around in class and they weren’t expected to be able to sit quietly on the carpet and listen. I couldn’t explain to anyone, (even to myself), how I really felt, so it just seemed easier to decide on being a boy.
Except that it wasn’t.
Really, what would have been easier, would have been to be able to fit into that damned box that society had drawn for me. It would have been easier to have been able to fake my way through and at least seem to fit in. But that wasn’t what I was good at. I was outspoken and oppositional, I was loud and fidgety, my handwriting was messy and I never shut up. None of these, I was told repeatedly throughout my schooling, were good qualities in a girl.
In grade 1, the boys were more accepting of my gender expression than the girls. The girls just flat out refused to allow me to be anything other than what they had defined for me. The boys said I could be a boy if I could fight them and win. I won the first two fights. Then Eric came and said it had to be a fight to the death. He won that one, strangling me from behind. The other boys decided that I could still be a boy, and even though Eric only occasionally bothered me, I hated him all the way through the rest of my elementary school life for trying to take that identity away from me.
There was also the problem of bathrooms. The very same girls who would never have let me pass for a boy when I was playing, were suddenly horrified to see me in the girl’s bathroom. Bathrooms were about the worst place to be teased and bullied. I remember the fear and embarassment at having no place to go, no place where I belonged.
I would love to say that things went more smoothly after that, but I don’t like to lie. I was bullied and teased, I had few friends and even the friends I had couldn’t be counted on to stand up for me. When I left elementary school, I left the idea that I could be anything other than a girl behind. It was too complicated and too dangerous to try to stand outside the societal box, so instead I settled for a really bad fit. I wore baggy clothes and generally just tried to not have an outward appearance, my goal was to be as gender neutral as I could, to try to find a comfortable place within myself.
Every now and then, I would give myself a pep talk about trying to be like other girls and I would put on makeup or dress in ‘girl clothes’, it would work for a few minutes or a few hours and then I would start to feel sick, I would feel almost like a weird sense of vertigo. I couldn’t understand or explain the feeling, but the older I got, the more I knew that it wasn’t worth it to try.
Eventually, around grade 10 or 11, I developed an actual style. My style was colourful and bright (mostly plaid for a year or two), I found there were some clothes where I could feel like me all day long. Mostly clothes that didn’t fit into anyone’s normal for either gender. Around the same time, I came out as bi-sexual. I thought that this explained everything. The reason I hadn’t fit was not a gender thing, it was just a sexuality thing. That was easier, more comfortable, there were lines and definitions and even other boxes to try out. I thought bisexual would mean I could lead a ‘normal’ life and just have crushes from time to time.
That didn’t quite work out either.
Around a decade later, I came out as a lesbian. I thought this is it! I have finally figured out where I fit. (Although, I moved to China for two years, which I don’t recommend to anyone who has just come out!) I thought I would talk to other gay people and find that they felt just like me. I thought that now that I had pinpointed my sexuality, the gender thing would just fall into place.
Again, it didn’t.
For a couple of years, I wondered if I was trans, but that didn’t quite fit either. I didn’t feel like a man, at least not all the time. The problem was I didn’t feel like a woman either, again, at least not all the time. It was like there was a teeter-totter inside of me, and it was never quite sure of where it should settle.
Then I became a teacher and a mama and it felt as though these things could be my identity. I was too busy to spend time soul searching. My life was full and fulfilling. Most of the people who know me would say I was eccentric (or weird) and that gave me the license to wear what I wanted most of the time, without having to come out with any new label or identity.
But, now, it is not quite enough. Now, I am settled and comfortable in who I am (comfortable enough to write this blog out into the world), but when I look at my students, my children or even back on that little me in grade 1, I know that I need to do more. I want to be that voice reminding child care workers, educators, religious leaders, librarians and whoever else is working with children that, “boys and girls,” is not an inclusive term. It is a term that highlights two chosen boxes and challenges everyone to fit inside one of them (the one that society says they should fit inside). When you say, “boys and girls,” the little kindergarten voice in my head says, “what about me?”
Changing your language around gender is a small step towards truly being an ally and a catalyst for change. If you want to take a bigger step, talk to the children you work with about why you aren’t using the term ‘boys and girls’ anymore. It can be as simple as telling them that you have learned that not everybody feels comfortable as a boy or a girl in their body and that you want to make sure that everyone is included, so from now on you will call them…. Friends, kids, children, people, learners, there really are a lot of choices that include everyone, not just those who fit in to the right box.