Genderqueer: JJ’s Story
CC image courtesy of Flickr, torbakhopper
HA note: The author’s name has been changed to ensure anonymity. “JJ” is a pseudonym.
Kid me, 9 years old.
Hot summer evening in the Midwest, post-bathtime, pre-bedtime. I’m running around at home with just shorts on, and my mom freaks out that I don’t have a shirt on. I don’t understand why I can’t be like all my male friends and go shirtless, but somehow I know better than to say so.
A few weeks later, we’re at our family reunion, taking pictures of the kid generation of my mom’s family. My boy cousins – who I spend all my playtime with – insist that I’m in the boy cousin picture, and everyone else insists that I’m in the girl cousin picture as well. At least I’m not the only one who knows I’m not really a girl. Everyone laughs about what a tomboy I am, and I start getting an inkling that somehow it runs deeper than that.
Awkward me in that stage between kid and teenager, 13 years old.
I’ve been having a really hard time focusing on my school work, my memory is terrible, and I can’t sit still for long at all. I heard of ADHD somewhere, and it sounded a lot like me. I thought my mom would think so, too, since she’s around me almost all day, constantly reminding me to look at my schoolwork, pay attention, stop walking around, quit fidgeting. I ask her if she thinks I might have ADHD, and she snaps back, “There’s nothing wrong with my daughter.”
That’s the last time I try talking to either of my parents about any sort of tough stuff.
Teenager me, 16 years old.
It’s 1:17AM. I stand in the only bathroom in my parents’ house, and I stare hard at my body’s reflection in the mirror – with a roll of duct tape and a determination to ‘figure myself out.’
I have read online how bad duct tape is for binding, but I don’t care because I don’t see any other options.
I carefully press my breasts back and down until they look more like pecs than the chest flaps I so desperately wanted to be gone that day.
More scrutinizing. Adjusting the direction. Careful taping.
When I finish I think I look like an alien – no nipples with silver bands precariously holding my body in one piece. I put my t-shirt back on and slip into my bedroom, avoiding the squeaky boards in the house’s old wooden floor. I learned long ago that my father is a light sleeper, so I know how to avoid waking him up.
I lie down in bed and touch my chest. This feels right. A flutter in my stomach. The tightness across my chest making me feel my heartbeat. Flat flat flat. I finally drift off to sleep.
The next morning, I wake up at 6:56AM with excruciating pain shooting through my chest and realize my mistake. Shit. I try to sit up and feel like a knife is embedded in both my lungs. In a panic I rip off the tape, knowing that at any minute my mom will burst in singing brightly that it is morning. Sitting up hurts like hell but I manage to grab a shirt and put it on before my mom comes in. I tell her I didn’t sleep much or well (not a lie) and she cuts me slack about being miserable all day.
It takes a couple days for my ribs, lungs, and back to feel normal again.
I keep binding anyway.
A week or two later.
It’s 1:03PM. Mom and sis are away running errands, and of course dad is at work. Other kids are in school, and I’m supposed to be reading my chemistry textbook, but I can skim it later. I’ll cheat on the test anyways, so it doesn’t really matter if I read the thing or not. I think my mom is stupid, keeping the answer book right next to the textbook. It’s like she’s asking me to cheat.
I carefully brush on purple eyeliner and make sure my tits are squashed together attractively. I can only work on my video blog when no one is home because I always dress just so and ramble on about sex, relationships, and gender until I have enough material to cut into a semi-coherent video.
In today’s vlog I explain how my gender doesn’t make sense to me.
I’ve heard a zillion names for not-male and not-female: genderfluid, neutrois, agender, genderfuck, third gender, two spirit, transmasculine, transfeminine, non-binary. None of them seem to fit.
A few days after that.
It’s 2:52AM. I’m talking to my best friend on the phone while sitting in the closet of my bedroom. The irony of being in the closet isn’t lost on me. It’s the spot where our conversations are muffled the most. Of course I’m not supposed to be on the phone, not to mention talking this late at night, but this was an emergency. Just like most other nights. Thinking about my gender makes me want to kill myself.
She listens, encourages, supports. She’s so sweet. She talks to me about stuff I could never ever EVER discuss with my family, who have effectively turned a blind eye to all signs and signals that something is wrong with me, never even asking if I’m okay.
I tell her about how I’ve been watching hours and hours of YouTube videos of transmen talking about their gender.
Pre-op. Post-op. Pre-T. One week, month, year on T. These videos inspire me to figure myself out, but I don’t fully relate with them. I’m not a man, and I don’t want to be a man.
So I’ve officially decided that I’m not a transman. I don’t like men. I don’t really feel like a man, though I certainly do feel masculine, at least sometimes. I feel good about this realization because it means I ruled one gender out, but at the same time it only makes the situation worse overall because I have no idea what to explore next.
I think about popping some of the Vicodin I have stashed away for gender-related emergencies – anything to take an edge off of my misery. I decide to save it because I’m finally getting sleepy, and I have to be to work at 6:30AM.
It’s morning, up for work, zombie my way there, work, work, work.
At 11:23AM, I’ve been at work for about five hours and am ready to go home even though the lunch rush has barely started. I’m a hard worker, so I’m tired. Plus I only slept three hours last night – not that it was abnormal for me to be sleep deprived – it just feels worse today.
“Mommy, is that a boy or a girl?”
“Shhhh, sweetie, come finish your lunch.”
‘Mommy’ turns to me and apologizes profusely. I say it’s fine, that it happens all the time, and I make a joke about our gender-neutral uniforms. As I finish sweeping the dining room, I think that I like how ‘sweetie’ couldn’t tell because I can’t tell either. Am I a boy or a girl? Who knows, I want to tell ‘mommy,’ who knows, and would it even matter if we did know?
I imagine that ‘mommy’ gives me sideways glances, probably trying to figure out if I’m gay or what.
Like my rainbow plugs aren’t a dead giveaway. Did she notice my flat chest? It’s extra flat today because I’m wearing a tight sports bra, a tank, and a compression shirt under my loose maroon polo.
I’m sure she noticed, and I can’t figure out if I feel excited or distressed.
I shove my hand in my pocket and feel the little case of pills I have. Still there. Ready for me when I’m ready for them.
Later that afternoon, a little after 4:00PM, I get high. I like how Xanax tastes salty when I dry swallow it.
Of course there’s a zillion reasons why I take the pills.
They’re fun, they help me forget or remember things, they help me feel, they make me be numb. They also help me focus when I have to cram a week’s worth of school work into one day. My mom has no idea how bad of an idea it is to give me the whole week’s assignments all at once, and she doesn’t even check if I’m working on it. The pills help me finish my work before she finds out.
Very versatile little things. I especially like how they make me forget about the gender thing.
That’s what I’ve started calling it – the gender thing. Forget forget forget, like in that one episode of Doctor Who. I wish I had a patch to just make me completely forget, but the pills work well enough.
Teenager me, almost 18 years old.
I don’t even know what time it is, sometime in the afternoon, at my “high school” “graduation” “party.” Lots of air quotes. “High school” – if you can call pretending to read stuff from a textbook “high school.” “Graduation” – if you can call cheating on a bunch of stuff and then getting a certificate printed by your mom “graduation.” “Party” – if you can call a stressful, awkward gathering of family and church people who barely know you a “party.”
At least my best friend got to come visit all week for this hell. She brought a ton of pills, and we managed to get our hands on some vodka as well. We spent the week strung out on a concoction of oxycontin, Xanax, and methadone. The day of my “party” would have been no different if we weren’t running out of the pills sooner than we meant to.
I feel like shit for a wide variety of reasons – thinking about how no one here really knows me, how I can’t get through a few days without getting high, how soon I’ll be able to move away – getting called my old girly name all day long, feeling like I’ll be trapped into this forever – wondering how I actually got to this point in life without killing myself, partially impressed and partially terrified – feeling like vomiting all day, nodding out while sitting on my parents’ porch and saying goodbye to “party” guests. Lots of good reasons to feel like shit.
At least this “high school” hell was over.
I moved out of my parents’ house and into a different state two days after I turned 18. Within a few months, I had squandered the $5,000 I had saved from working nearly full-time in high school, I was homeless, and I couldn’t stop getting high no matter how hard I tried. I kind of forgot about my gender issues because my basic needs were not being met. Somehow I managed to keep a job despite all that, and I was lucky enough to never overdose, though I did doses and combinations of things that have killed other people.
Once I was sick and tired enough of being so sick and tired, I asked for help in staying clean. My best friend’s family provided support for me in a way that my blood family wouldn’t. My own parents refused to acknowledge that their kid could possibly have any serious problems, but my best friend’s family saw past that, and they held me accountable for my actions. They saved my life and encouraged me to connect with the resources I needed to get clean, stay clean, and find a new way to live.
I am grateful to have been clean and sober since November 18, 2011.
I’ve learned a lot about life since then: what adaptive ways to handle stress are, how to have interpersonal relationships without lying about everything, how to admit when I’m wrong and ask for forgiveness, when to ask for help if I can’t do something on my own, how important it is to share my experiences to offer strength and hope to people who are dealing with similar things to me.
I’ve even realized my part in the disastrous nature of my relationship with my parents – how in my situation, the failure to relate flowed both ways. Both me and my parents have apologized to each other and did what we could to make amends for our broken relationship. Nowadays, they genuinely want to know about how I’m doing, and I can answer them honestly without fear. What an exciting improvement! Teenager me would never have believed it was possible, yet here we are, functioning in a decent parent-adult child relationship!
Adult me, recently.
It’s Easter dinner at my friend’s house. I missed the round of introductions to family, so no one knows my name. I’m sitting next to my friend’s grandpa. We chat for the whole dinner, and the whole time he calls me “young man,” “son,” and “buddy.” I don’t bother ‘correcting’ him, and the whole time I’m giggling in my head.
Gender doesn’t make me want to die anymore, at least not usually.
It’s funny to me more than anything else now.
I still haven’t quite figured it out – “the gender thing” – but for now, I’m okay with that. In my head, right now I call myself a genderqueer-ish vaguely female-ish human. Outwardly, I just go with the flow of how anyone else perceives me, whether that’s as a boy, girl, man, woman, or whatever else. But I don’t even think about it that much. Other labels are a lot more important to me now – things like happy, friendly, grateful, loving, peaceful – not that I’m perfect with those things, of course. I’ve learned to accept myself for who I am regardless of what others – even my family – might think (or not think) of me.
Most importantly, overall, my life is pretty good.