This post, the first in which I explore my gender journey, was updated on October 22, 2014,on December 23, 2014 and and again on January 10, 2015, January 29, 2015, and February 11, 2015. My latest update on being agender is here. Now on with the earlier story…
I have become very fascinated with the world of non-binary gender identities. This interest comes from a desire to educate myself about diversity and also a personal examination of my own place in this emerging brave new world. First some personal reflection, excuse me if it is a bit rambling and self revelatory. Let the ramblin’ reminiscing commence…
First let me take you to my Junior year in high school. I was really going through a lot of inner turmoil about myself and my sexuality. I was also aware that others considered some of my behavior, gender non-conforming. That gender non-conforming bit had been noticed by others early in elementary school. There were derogatory comments made about being a sissy or saying I threw, ran and even crossed my legs like a girl. By the time I was a Junior in high school I’d managed to temper most of that but I couldn’t totally eliminate who I was. It was now jock-type bullies that plagued me.
The worst incident occurred in the restroom one day. I’d finished my business and was washing my hands when this guy shoved me against the wall. He thrust his finger into.my solar plexus and growled, “you’re a faggot and I’ll be watching you.” I was scared shitless and just cowered there meekly. I don’t recall what else may have transpired but the lingering memory of anxiety, panic and fear remains.
I didn’t tell a soul because I felt my tormentors was right. I’d been aware of being different from way back and aware of my attraction to other guys for several years. I also had a secret, I was trying on girls clothing when I was on my own. I was staying with a dentist and his wife. They had a daughter that was away at college. She was about my size and one day my curiosity got the better of me. I carefully looked through her dresser and found some nylons and a dress.
I remember the exhilarating feeling of pulling the nylons up my legs and across my crotch. I put on the dress and looked at myself in the mirror. The truth was I looked slightly ridiculous, at least that is what I thought. I had a full mustache which I had from my Sophomore year on. I know I was pleased with my facial hair. Looking back, I wonder if some of that was to outwardly look more manly so I wouldn’t get teased. Anyway, the rest of my memories about this secretive cross dressing are cloudy. Years of repressing them has deprived me of that particular window into my past. Part of the reaeson was the bullying including the incident I related. There was one other reason.
At the end of the school year we received our yearbooks. Others were just letting their yearbook be passed around for the obligatory messages and signatures. Later I was looking through the yearbook reading the mostly nice things people had to say when I came upon an inscription that said, “to a fine faggot.” I was shocked, the air rushed out of my lungs. I grabbed a pen and tried to scribble over the top of the offensive word with limited success. Later there was another derogatory sentence about me being gay, (I was completely in the closet at the time). That was a second shock and I vowed never to show that yearbook to anyone.
The one super kind remark came from the only guy on campus who was more effeminate than me. I treasure that message now. You see my friend and classmate went on to college where he excelled in the music program. He began heading into the city to meet men and somewhere along the line contracted HIV. He died in the ’80s from complications associated with AIDS. His family had virtually disowned him and he passed without the love of his family to comfort him.
I didn’t learn about this until a year or two ago when a guy who also knew him shared the sad story. I went through my own dramatic events which I have written about elsewhere. The most traumatic was losing my close gay friend to suicide while a freshman in college. This sent me back into the closet I had only opened for my lost friend, (I shared that I too was attracted to guys – the only person I ever told).
I eventually came out a decade later and began working full-time for a new AIDS Service Organization. There I met a volunteer and after a year of friendship we fell in love and moved in together.
Post Coming Out Rambling and Reminiscing
I have always felt less than completely male. This would not be obvious from looking at me as I present myself to the world. For better or worse I have the very male looking body of a typical Bear. I did go through a period when I went clean shaven, shaved hair from my shoulders and wore some very innocuous makeup, (mostly foundation). I did this in part because I am attracted to androgynous appearing guys and mistakenly thought I had to look like what I was attracted to. This changed when I met my partner of seven years who met me when I was clean shaven but saw my graduation photo with me in full beard. He convinced me to go full Bear in appearance, (I had come to realize that not only was I not a macho man, I was really attracted to androgynous guys).
When I first met Greg he was a clean shaven college student 13 years younger than myself (20 to my 33). We were, however, relatively the same in our out years (both of us having come out at relatively the same time). I was even more thrilled when he grew his hair out as this made him even more attractive in my eyes. What I was less thrilled about was his growing a moustache and goatee but I said nothing to him about that as I recall. This definitely had an impact on how physically attractive he was to me and I deeply regret never mentioning that to him. In any case, we began to have some trouble in our relationship which we tried to resolve through couples counseling. I still had some unconscious hang ups about sex due to my fundamentalist Christian upbringing and some phobias brought on by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It was frustrating to me when I had difficulty performing some acts because of these irrational fears. It was, I am sure, even more frustrating for Greg. I also failed to communicate what my turn-ons were, which I also deeply regret.
Part of the problem was how I felt inside. I knew I was not the masculine man I appeared to be on the surface. I felt more like a mama bear rather than a papa bear at times. I was repulsed when guys would come on to me as a hyper-masculine bear. I had no problem accepting the whole world of leather daddies on an intellectual level. I was a professional who believed in non-judgemental acceptance of those I served in my capacity as someone working with people with HIV/AIDS and those whose behaviors were placing them at risk. I worked with people into S&M and tried to be supportive in providing accurate, non-judgemental information on how to be safe. I definitely found the whole scene personally repulsive which I hid from those I worked with and for. I wanted to embrace and cuddle not spank and bind or be bound to a bed!
Ever since I was a young teen I desired long hair. I found the look daring and non-conforming which was exactly how I wanted to present myself to the world. I also knew it was considered feminine and embraced because of that not despite it. My parents were not happy with this desire at all. We had some heated arguments about my hair length all throughout my teens. The fights also included clothing I desired such as flowery shirts and bell bottom jeans. The most extreme argument took place while we were at “campmeeting,” the annual gathering of Seventh-Day Adventists where people lived in tents and attended religious meetings in huge tents. We were eating a meal in the tent and I was arguing about growing out my hair. I became so angry that I flipped the table over and stomped away
As I grew older I went through phases where my hair was shorter but still found long hair very attractive in other guys. About the time I met Greg I had grown a mullet, (I can be forgiven it was the late ’80s and early ’90s). That questionable hair style lasted for a 2 – 3 years. Then, I made the decision to have shorter hair for awhile for professional reasons. I was going into schools to provide education about sexuality and HIV/STD prevention and a conservative look helped me become acceptable. Finally after moving to New Mexico and being established in a job at the state Department of Health, I decided to grow my hair out. It has been long ever since 2002.
My long hair symbolizes that I am not your average bear. It changed the way people perceived me and took away much of the masculine image. I was thrilled with this change in perception as it helped my external appearance better align with who I was inside. I started calling myself a fairy bear a nod to my respect for the “Radical Faerie” movement begun by Queer Pioneer, Harry Hay.
The Radical Faeries reject gay assimilation ideology and instead adopt an identity apart from the gender binary. They are heavily influenced by aboriginal spiritualities which recognizes other gender with special roles and gifts. Here’s a look at the culture I am most familiar with, the Diné or Navajo:
Gender Roles and Identity within the Navajo Culture
In the Navajo culture, there is a much more complex gender system than the binary dichotomy we find in Western culture. There are actually five different genders in the Navajo culture, which can be defined as follows as found in the blog Trans Bodies Across The Globe, run by the Department of Gender Studies, Indiana University Bloomington:
1. Woman: the primacy gender of the Navajo is asdzaan, meaning woman. The female gender is primary in Navajo origin stories, and it is considered to be the most important gender.
2. Man: the next gender is hastiin (man).
3. Nadleeh (also written as nádleehí): the third gender category is nadleeh/transgender. Nadleeh is a Navajo term, and transgender is a Western term. Western definitions of transgendered people have been applied to Nadleeh. The Navajo view nadleeh as individuals who demonstrate characteristics of the opposite gender. Individuals who identify as nadleeh are further classified as female-bodied nadleeh or male-bodied nadleeh. The third gender category of nadleeh reflects the Navajo tradition of accepting gender diversity and rejecting the concept of gender dysphoria or a dyadic system of gender.
4. Masculine female: the fourth gender category is masculine female, or female-bodied nadleeh/nádleehí . Navajo culture views masculine females separate from other female-bodied people because their role in society is different from primary gender women. Today, masculine females occupy some roles usually associated with men. Historically, female-boded nadleeh had specific ceremonial roles.
5. Feminine male: the fifth gender is the feminine male, or male-bodied nadleeh/nádleehí . Feminine males identify with gender diversity, and they typically performed work also performed by women.
What is really interesting, and admirable about the gender system with the Navajo’s is how inclusive it is of an array of different gender identities. It allows for the expression of different combinations of sex and gender roles, and has specific value to each one. Perhaps the Western world would benefit from moving towards a Navajo viewpoint, which values each of its members regardless of their sexual and gender identity, finding a special place in society for all of its members.
My Identity Coalesces
I have done a lot of introspection about who I was. I am what polite people call “eccentric” – I begin by calling myself Queer! Over time the feminine part of me began to gradually assert itself. Traditionally people associate feminine with glamour, fashion and external presentation of femininity. Those things I admire but I am not glamorous at all. So even though I worked in female dominated fields my whole life, it took awhile for it to “click” why I felt different and still not completely whole. For me the feminine part of me that really began to assert itself was the desire to be, kind, sweet, gentle and in touch with my feelings. In our society, particularly in the past, we identity those qualities with “mothering.” I want to be there for those who need love and support to be a nurturing presence. Let me put it this way if I were a four legged bear, I’d be a mama bear.
Around the office and among friends I became known as a “care bear” and that identity stuck. Soon people were buying me “Care Bear” stuffed animals and a friend presented me with a Care Bear poster where one of the bears was replaced with my photo and JerBear replacing the traditional Care Bear name.
I was aware of the genderqueer identity for awhile as I had a neighbor who identified as such. It never quite clicked with me personally because I mistakenly viewed it as a female to male (F2M) identity because that’s the way the identity appeared to me on the surface. I was not familiar with those designated male at birth, (dmab), also adopting the label. I was also not aware of the other non-binary gender identities that were being adopted. That all changed when the horrific story of Sasha Fleishman hit the news. Sasha, who identifies as agender, was riding a bus when their skirt was set on fire. This crime and Sasha’s brave story opened the eyes of many people, including me, to non-binary gender identities. I featured several posts on the story here, here, here, and here.
The Identity Revealed
This started me thinking about all the transgender people I knew and how the more expansive gender identity options might affect me personally. I laid out how I felt to a tumblr blogger who ran a site for and about non-binary genders. I described how I felt and my feelings about my own gender. I described how externally I appeared male but internally I felt something other than just male. I received a lovely response which gave me some guidance on options I might consider. As I pondered the options I narrowed my potential descriptors down to these three options:
1. Queer Fairy (my own brand of Genderqueer). If I chose this descriptor I would no longer call myself a Queer man but just Queer, Genderqueer or, most likely, Queer Fairy.
2. Demiboy/Demiguy: Partly a guy but also partly something non-binary.
3. Genderqueer or agender
At first I chose to combine the first two options and call myself a Queer Fairy Demibear, but as I spent more time pondering my identity I decided just to call myself Genderqueer or, as I now prefer, agender. Yes I am also a Queer Fairy and once in great while I feel like a Demiguy but the truth is that I feel less and less like a male at any time. Genderqueer is an evolving identity and can encompass someone like myself who experiences some gender fluidity. I will also use Agender because it fits where best how I feel about myself.
While it has taken me decades to arrive at this identity, (which is still coalescing as I write this), I do know is that I have never felt completely male. This has become increasingly clear in the last year. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to all those fighting the gender binary orthodoxy. In particular, the newest generation of activists who are unafraid of challenging convention and are opening the door to a brave new world of gender identities. All of us owe a debt to First Nation people who created a place of respect and honor for those who lived apart from the binary. I also thank the Radical Faeries for first placing the idea in my head that I might be something other than a man while still not being a woman either.
One more thing, while I am dysphoric about my body and some of that discomfort is/are characteristics associated with gender a great deal more has to do with body type. Sure I would like to be much slimmer and erase the effects of age and disability. and while I’d like to be smooth, I have accepted that outwardly I look like a bear. I have used my long hair as a sort of totem or marker that symbolizes my genderqueer identity. I have accepted that my body and facial hair are just an external manifestations but don’t say anything about who I am internally. Much of what is not visible is female or non-binary. I have viewed my bearhood as part papa bear, part mama bear, sometimes a little bear and always a fairy bear. I am unique and strange. I am a Genderqueer Fairy Bear!
Here’s a recent photo of me taken on March 14, 2015. The caption on the shirt reads, “Some People Don’t Fit The Gender Binary.”
I am still on a journey of self discovery. I don’t know where I will end up but for the first time in my life I am saying I am more, much more, than just a man. I embrace the feminine within, I reject the traditional roles society upon me. I am a proud fairy bear and a gentle mama bear who wants to be a force for love and understanding. Hold on, the journey has just begun!
Since first writing a version of this a few months ago I have made some changes. I have purchased 3 kilts to wear. I know these are associated with masculinity but there is also a bit of gender non-conforming aura around wearing them for non-Scottish men in America. It also feels like the right move for me at this point in my journey. I have also purchased a denim skirt with I really love as it has pockets and balances out some traditional male or unisex clothing, adding a bit of a hippy chick vibe. I really haven’t sorted out what my look will be. Will I keep the beard? Yeah, probably but I have been experimenting with coloring it purple, (using a type of mascara for facial hair). As far as makeup I am not sure what I’ll use. I have dry skin conditions and I have a deformed finger and have awful fine motor control in my dominant hand so applying stuff might require help. It is a brave new world so the future is still being written.
I have shared my non-binary gender identity with two close friends who have been very supportive. I also had a talk with my ex partner who was also very supportive. The interesting thing that came out of the conversation for me was how we’ve changed in perceptions of our gender. When we were together people would have guessed that if there were any roles then I would be the more masculine one. I now realize that is one of the reasons things didn’t work out in the end; I wanted to be more gender neutral and Greg was not completely accepting that he was more masculine. Now I can finally articulate what I have been feeling all these years. We even talked about a name change for me. I think Jerry is gender neutral and haven’t used my official name in years. I may look into a change as I also want to change or add to my last name. My grandmother’s maiden name was Jewish and I have Jewish ancestry through her. I have been thinking of using her maiden name as my last name and use my current last name as a middle name or part of a hyphenated last name. On January 7, 2015 I came out to every friend on Facebook. Aside from one transgender person I’d shared emails with, I received no response whatsoever. I guess I was expecting either hostility or congratulations but to hear nothing is frustrating. I posted a pair of links to my Facebook friends as well: a fantastic agender comic and a genderqueer FAQ from a genderqueer tumblr.
As I just started, I really wish someone would say something in response to these revelations and posts. I know however, that I must be patient. It took decades and the bold example of some brave young tumblr bloggers for me to figure myself out. I must be patient as others become more comfortable with non-binary gender identities in general and my identity in particular.
2nd Transition Update
January 29, 2015
I finally got my ears repierced (they were pierced years ago, each at different times, left ear before I came out and right after bursting out of the closet). The piercings are another step in my slow transition. The beard may have to go unless I decorate my face with enough makeup to draw attention elsewhere. I do have special facial hair mascara in purple and I think pink is coming as well so that’s another option. There are some genderqueer and agender dmab (designated male at birth) people who wear beards. It’s finding a way to look more androgynous while still having a beard. I’m trying to create a “fairy bear” look which is challenging. I am tired of people calling me “sir” all the time. I did get some clothing that will balance things out. I’ll wait until I get a photographer before showing off the completed new look. As David Bowie once sang; ch-ch-ch-changes!
After posting this on Facebook I got a number of positive responses for the first time. I was very encouraged as up until then there was no feedback whatsoever.
3rd Transition Update
February 11, 2015
When I started this journey last summer I was following the pull of my heart and was tired of pretending. The journey I am taking about is living my life as an agender, genderqueer person. I did not, however, stop to think about how this would affect my preexisting anxiety disorder which is triggered, in part by being out in public by myself. Up until now I have only dressed in a blend of what may be considered to be masculine and feminine clothes when I am with close friends and allies. I had hoped to find a way to keep a close cropped beard in the mix but it is clear that short of going very feminine otherwise I will still be taken as a man. So after being “sir-ed” while out shopping I came home and shaved the beard off.
I had, had a beard for 24 uninterrupted years. Prior to that there was an approximately 3 year period without a beard which was proceeded by another 6 years with a beard and most of the years from a high school sophomore until the middle of my senior year in college with at least a moustache and sideburns. So to say I feel exposed is an understatement! I may find a way as other non-binary people designated male at birth have to grow a beard and be seen as non-binary. I do think, for now, this step is necessary to be perceived as genderqueer by others. Yes, that shouldn’t matter but damn it, it does. Yet, it does leave me feeling more exposed.
So now we get to makeup and wardrobe. I like the idea of mixing it up by wearing a skirt or kilt with a simple shirt. I ordered several message T-shirts from Cafe Press that make who I am clear. I also have an array of pink and purple shirts and jackets that are technically men’s shirts but are really pretty unisex. Now back to the point in the first paragraph. If I go out in a skirt with knee high rainbow socks and some simple makeup I will not be trying to pass as female but as someone with no gender or both at once. This confuses people no end. People outside of the rarefied air of progressive high schools, colleges and universities and the “tumblrverse” do not know much about genderqueer people. So confusing them is inevitable and potentially educational but also potentially dangerous
I rely on public transportation and the good will of a friend to get around. I cannot control who the taxi driver will be or the passengers sitting next to me on a bus. Yes, I live in a very progressive city but that doesn’t always apply to taxi drivers and public bus passengers. Take today as an example – the taxi driver was, by all telltale signs, a good ole boy, from the way he talked to the country music blaring on the radio. Now, I’m sure there are some really open minded good ole boy taxi drivers but would I be comfortable wearing a skirt and makeup in this guy’s cab? Hell no!
I know the stories and have read the stats about violence directed at trans people. I know as a chubby, bear of a guy that’ll never be young, smooth and slim that I symbolize a big “screw you” to the binary gender roles society expects. So this is like taking a flying leap off of a cliff in the dark in hopes that the water will be there when I arrive at the bottom.
Sometimes being true to yourself means taking risks. I did that almost exactly 28 years ago in February of 1987 when I came out as gay. I took risks at ACT-UP, Queer Nation and other LGBT demonstrations. I took risks bringing HIV, STD and Hepatitis information and risk reduction supplies to hustlers, prostitutes, men cruising for sex with other men or trans women, and injection drug users on the streets late at night. I took risks advocating for LGBTQ youth back when that wasn’t always easy for me and especially for the youth. I took risks educating doctors, nurses and public health personnel about HIV, STDs and Client Centered Counseling, Testing and prevention as an openly gay man. I’ve done all that and more but nothing has scared me as much as presenting the real me to the world.
P.S. I refilled my anxiety medication Rx today.
Fourth Transition Update… I continue to explain my Agender Identity here:https://jeriraeinsantafe.wordpress.com/being-agender/
A word about words (an evolving epilogue)
I have no desire to get into a battle of words to claim terminology. My feeling is that one’s identity is a very personal decision and choice. I have no desire to co-opt someone else’s identity. The Trans (or Trans* if you prefer) umbrella is wide enough for many. Personally, at this point in time I do not call myself transgender as it is now frequently identified with people who are designated one sex at birth but come to realize that they are in fact not the gender designated at birth but the opposite from a binary gender perspective. Transgender people, those who feel they are in the wrong body, face many unique and difficult challenges that I have not nor will I ever face. I, of course, remain a strong ally of transgender people. As to whether I identify as under the trans umbrella – I was not sure at first but now I understand my uneasiness was because I wasn’t fully embracing myself. It is easy to get caught up in comparing superficial presentation; what you wear, how long your hair is, how much make up you wear. I felt I wasn’t femme enough and so was in my mind, not worthy to be trans. I am trying to eliminate such thoughts but admit to still feeling uneasy sometimes. For me what others call me or label me is not as important as my own personal acceptance of who I am. The range of non-binary gender identities is only now being recognized. As identities are claimed and named, I do hope people will be kind to each other. It pains me deeply when there is infighting in our LGBTQIA family. Clearly our enemies don’t care. All they see are people who don’t conform to gender role expectations. Hating transgender, intersex, genderqueer and other people with non-binary gender identities is an extension of sexism, misogyny, transphobia, transmisogyny and effeminaphobia. We need to be united in demanding acceptance not engaged in infighting between ourselves.