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On Coupling | 2009 | More Love and Less Paperwork

09.27.09 10:49 a.m.

Class, race, sexuality, gender and all other categories by which we categorize and dismiss each other need to be excavated from the inside.  

-Dorothy Allison


When I Was a Girl

I'm pretty!

I remember a sleepover with three of my cousins, two archetypical boys and a tomboy. Even when I was four or so, I felt somehow different, and not simply that they ate their morning Cheerios without the requisite honey nut. We played with army men and trucks and I felt more that I was performing a role for their benefit than that I was enjoying myself. It was only once they brought out a monster toy, equal parts man, toad, and crocodile, that I found something I enjoyed. In being anthropomorphic, it was like a stuffed animal. Even then, I was aware this rubbery thing was a concession between what I wanted and what was wise in front of relatives. While I don't recall my parents noting what constituted a "boy toy" or a "girl toy", I understood that there are clear delineations.

Next to books, I enjoyed stuffed animals, something that I think started to worry my mother, as I only fully disabused myself of plush things once I found that girls were a much more delightful - if emotionally inconsistent - replacement. Putting away childhood things meant that I could enjoy the pleasures of adolescent things (toys will always lose out to teenage groping). I still have the bunny I was given at birth (apparently named Bunrab, because toddlers are clever at naming things) and a Monchichi whose fur is loved off in places. Aside from these, while I have stuffed things (an UglyDoll IceBat, a skeleton in pajamas, two teddy bears named Gislebeartus and Beartrand Russell), I consider them decoration.

It isn't that I never wanted to play with more stereotypically masculine toys. I happened to appreciate my Optimus Prime (with the chest cavity that could act as a safe place to hide money from my older brother) and my set of Ninja Turtles, as well as the occasional water- and dart-guns I received when the season called for it, but I liked my stuffed animals more because I was emotionally invested. There were dozens, now largely consigned to hanging garbage bags in my parents' basement, each with its own name and personality that I could rattle off. My storytelling likely began here, contriving interrelations for a bunny in a top coat (since found by Melanie when it was used as an outdoor Easter decoration, laundered, and renamed Archibald) and a neon snake. Until third or fourth grade, I felt that not loving them as much as I could would mean they were neglected, and had to be convinced not to sleep with twenty in my bed, leaving little room for me. Even my mother's friend explaining the plot to Child's Play only meant that the two My Buddy dolls slept in the hamper, but not that I liked them any less in the daylight.

The dolls were not the issue, merely a symptom. I recall liking traditionally feminine things and felt a lot more comfortable with the girls my age my mother babysat, and not simply because there was a chance that I would one day kiss them. Likewise, the moment I discovered that my baking things always meant there would be cakes and brownies waiting for me, I dedicated myself to improving upon Betty Crocker. I was always the emotional one, the sensitive one. I wrote poetry in fifth grade. I didn't want to be a girl, but I didn't object to having my nails painted if it meant extended contact during the application. It even got to the point that one of my older brother's friends paid me in ice cream to wear her prom dress for a photo shoot, the pictures of which circulated around my high school before I did. (In one defining moment, my ninth grade English teacher publicly identified me as the subject of the infamous crossdressing pictures. Knowing this could be the statement that ruined me, I instead proudly challenged him to produce these so we could show them around the class, labeling me as an eccentric rather than a sexual deviant who got his kicks in borrowed dresses.) I'm hardly offended to be called pretty even now.

Until high school and this experience in English class, I don't think it occurred to me to think about things like gender identity. I was aware that actual homosexuality existed from the time I was ten (as opposed to the boogieman of homosexuality shouted as insults on the bus) but likewise knew I was heterosexual. I even knew that one of my then friends was not straight, something he didn't acknowledge for another decade (another former friend, despite wearing makeup and dresses to school, angrily referred to me as a "faggot" until I graduated, projecting his issues more than a little). This issue was not at all with my sexual orientation, as I have actually never seen fit to question that.

I had long hair from sixth grade on, because my older brother introduced me to heavy metal and long hair was simply what was done; I never saw it as feminine and quickly adopted the deflection that Jesus happened to have long hair and no one was suggesting he minced on water. Others would accuse me of homosexuality because I had longer hair than them, perhaps confusing just what homosexuality entailed. I tended to shrug this off and point out that their sister/female cousin/female friend/girlfriend would contest I was straight from firsthand experience. Their insecurity didn't bother me because I had no reason to mirror their worry.

I was never interested in sports, either, unless I happened to be the one playing. I never saw the appeal of watching men play children's games, nor why this was earmarked as a manly thing to do. In childhood, the aforementioned crossdresser once asked me what my favorite baseball team was. I, being a native New Yorker, was only aware of the Yankees and the Mets so I chose the former because I liked their logo more. He was furious and tried to convince me the Mets were better. I had no idea why this was important and he wouldn't believe that I would rather watch nothing than play cheerleader to a baseball team that cared nothing about me. When I watch the Superbowl now, I don't really care who is playing (nor do I remember who won) and just enjoy the excuse for a party.

Even now my father expresses immediate doubt not only that I cannot fix a broken air conditioner but that I even lack the basic tools that would allow this, something that impugns the more masculine part of my gender identity. That the pliers have a pink handle is not a fact I care to bring up and is a mere coincidence - I have actually always disliked the color, likely because I have some visceral association with chalky diarrhea medicine. I did, in fact, fix the air conditioner enough despite a mild electric shock. Prime time television leads me to believe that suffering an injury in order to fix something is supremely manly.

That, in fact, comes to a crux of this issue. Much of what is traditionally masculine seemed simultaneously pejorative to me. Men are stupid, fat, smelly, and brutish. Those that aren't are understood to be gay (and gays, in being feminine, are weak and effete). They destroy out of their nature and solve problems only with fists and grunts. Men are seen as less evolved, the Morlocks to the feminine Eloi. I have been called feminine because I read and care about things enough to occasionally cry. I tend to tell people how I am feeling and want to talk out problems. I genuinely have always had a lot more interest in being loved than bedded (though that followed). Though it may make the insecure uneasy, I enjoy my pseudo-androgyny because it is who I am rather than a stereotype of who I am supposed to be. Despite how this all sounds, my gender is almost irrelevant to who I am.

Soon in Xenology: Maybe a job.

last watched: Singin' in the Rain
reading: Skinny Legs and All
listening: Garfunkel and Oates

On Coupling | 2009 | More Love and Less Paperwork

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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