On Coming Out as Genderqueer; or, My Life as a Bearded Lady
The culture would have us believe that gender comes naturally for some people. I have my doubts, but it’s possible that my own struggle has just made me cynical. What I do know is that gender and its cousin sexuality have been a source of confusion for most of my life. After all this time, however, I feel like I’ve come to some sort of understanding, and I’d like to share it as best I can. This is a very personal narrative, but my hope is that by writing it down and putting it out there, I can avoid (or at least minimize) the even more daunting task of explaining myself verbally over and over again.
From an early age, I felt different from other little boys, and identified more with the idea of being a girl. Sometime during the “trashy talk show” boom of the late 80’s/early 90’s, I learned about the existence of transsexuals and became obsessed with them. It was a strange era, when an adolescent boy could watch any sort of differently gendered or oddly oriented person spill their guts on TV, and nobody batted an eye as long as he gave lip service to the popular notion that it was all a bizarre freak show.
In high school I identified semi-openly as bisexual (this was the mid-90’s, so at least 60% of my fellow black clad weird kids did the same). I experimented with gender presentation, frequently wearing a fedora with a flower in the brim and dancing along with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. When I had my first serious girlfriend, however, much of that went out the window. With the way that my mind worked at that time, based on the ideas about the world that I’d been handed, I thought that was that: If I genuinely liked girls (both romantically and sexually) then I must be a guy. I didn’t become macho or anything, but I consciously worked on building an identity as a straight man.
Of course, none of the other stuff ever quite left. I remember discussions with my high school girlfriend about the idea of changing sex, about what it would be like if I was a girl, about dreams I had in which I was a girl. But I could never cross that line and say, “I think I might be a girl,” or even, “Sometimes I wish I was a girl.” Even though she was herself a black clad bisexual weird kid, the idea of telling her—telling anyone, really— about this side of myself was too horrifying to contemplate.
College, of course, changed things a bit. I met and befriended people who were genuinely queer, and some who were seriously interested in alternative models for identity and lifestyle, as opposed to the nascent strangelets of my high school clique. I took Women’s Studies and Gender Studies classes, and read Kate Bornstein and Leslie Feinberg. Eventually, I was finally ready to say it, to embrace it, to shout it from rooftops (as long as those rooftops were far away from my parents’ houses): I was a transgender lesbian.
I was in no hurry to rush into a life test or anything, but just accepting this identity and being open about it with my friends made me a much happier person. I gradually cultivated a more androgynous appearance, but I never made an effort to “pass.” Nevertheless, I felt that the road I was on was one that led (or was meant to lead) to an eventual hormonal and possibly surgical transition.
Unfortunately, my physicality was an obstacle. People transitioning in both directions will tell you that once testosterone has changed your body, those changes are permanent. By the time I was anywhere close to figuring my identity out, T had really done a number on me. I’ve had a full, thick, wiry beard since I was 16 years old. When I attempt to be clean shaven (as I did quite aggressively in my androgyny days) I have an unmistakable shadow pretty much immediately. I’m prickly by evening, and by the next morning most people would think I hadn’t shaved in three days. Razor burn was also a constant torment. The rest of my body also tends toward the hirsute, except the top of my head, where male pattern baldness started somewhere in my mid-20s and has accelerated since.
I remember the exact moment that I gave up. I was doing full (though unconventional) drag for a costume party, and I sought out solutions to my five o’clock shadow. Fed up with razors, I made an appointment at a salon to have my face waxed. I knew it would hurt like hell, but I figured, just this once, I can be smooth. Unfortunately, my beard proved invincible. The waxer pulled, and nothing came. The salon owner came in and tried it herself, and it still didn’t work. She eventually gave up and explained that my facial hair was just too thick to wax. She was very apologetic, and did my eyebrows for free to compensate, but I was not consoled. I spent that evening in the arms of my best friend at the time, crying, while she stroked my hair and pointed out that this happens to all women, really—the realization that we may never look the way we’re told we’re supposed to look.
The realization didn’t settle in immediately, but that was when I accepted that I would never pass. I might not be a man, but I would never be someone that people on the street looked at and saw as a woman. That was important to me at the time. I didn’t feel like I was strong enough to transition if I would be constantly seen as a freakish crossdresser, having to defend my identity and existence to every random person I met. I’m a little ashamed, to be honest, that that’s how I felt, but it is. I was young. Furthermore, being a college student of limited means, any sort of permanent hair removal (let alone hormones or surgery) felt years away. So I decided to work on accepting myself with the body and appearance I was given, and told myself that I knew who I was on the inside, and I wasn’t bound to traditional gender roles anyway.
Over the next few years, though, it became all too easy to fall back into a kind of closet. After I left college (and then when I went back to school later), I encountered people who hadn’t known me in my lesbian days, and they saw me as a slightly unusual straight man. It was all too easy to let them keep seeing me that way. I generally avoided applying the label “straight” to myself, but when you look like a man and you date women, people tend to assume without asking.
Certainly my reticence partly reflected a reluctance to let go of my recently regained straight male privilege (although I certainly wasn’t thinking of it in those terms at the time), but the main thing keeping my mouth shut was a fear that I’d never be understood. To begin with, the “lesbian in a man’s body” is an idea so clichéd it’s almost meaningless. Nominally progressive but privileged straight men like to throw that label around as a way of saying, “I’m not like those sexist men you hate!” with an occasional dash of, “Let me get in on some of that hot lesbian action!” thrown in. I found (and continue to find) that kind of appropriation of queer identities distasteful and damaging, and I frequently kept my mouth shut about my own sense of identity out of a fear of being misconstrued. Beyond that, I just didn’t feel like I had much to gain by openness. I was living a lifestyle that resembled straight manhood closely enough that the difference I felt hardly seemed to matter, so I let it sink to the back of my mind.
More recently, I’ve been absorbing a lot of Queer Theory, and incorporating it into my own work as a grad student in Film Studies. Thinking about how gender works, particularly through the works of Judith Butler, has led me to actively think about my own gender again. Surprisingly, I feel like I actually did a lot of settling into a comfortable identity for myself during the time when I wasn’t focusing and fretting over it, and now I’ve gained the perspective to understand and name that identity.
I’ve also come to find the closet a distasteful and unpleasant place to be. As my academic work becomes increasingly queer, I feel a greater need to apply this newfound understanding of gender and sexuality to my own life. Moreover, if an aspect of my career is going to be this project of conceptualizing a world in which all possible genders and sexualities are acceptable, then letting everyone think I'm a straight man when I know I'm not feels like a betrayal of my work as well as myself.
One word that I hardly ever heard back in college (although it definitely existed in the queer writings of the time) is genderqueer. It gets a lot more play now, though, and the more I hear and think about it, the more I like it. I’m ready to apply it to myself, in fact. That’s me: I’m genderqueer. I don’t think I’m a man, and I doubt I ever have been one. However, I’ve learned to be reasonably comfortable in the body nature gave me, as long as it doesn’t keep me locked into the identity that society says is meant to go with it. I’ve even come to love my beard. I think I look better with it than without it, and I’ve let go of the notion that it’s an indelible mark of masculinity. Regardless of my body, in my heart I feel like a woman, but I know that womanhood is just another cultural construction built around a basically arbitrary set of traits.
Having found a way of understanding/explaining/labeling my gender with which I’m comfortable, I’m working on this essay as part of a larger plan of coming out socially and professionally. However, I’ll admit that I’m still figuring out exactly what being “out” means for me. I may adopt more markers of androgyny in my personal appearance, but that’s something that will take some exploration (re-exploration, really) to determine what feels right. I do know that I want to actively reject the labels “man” and “straight” and their variations. This may lead to confusion and even arguments, but I hope to have the patience to make myself understood. If I refuse to be called a man, that’s not a denial of the privilege that society gives me because of my masculine appearance, and it’s also not any sort of statement that there’s something wrong with being a man. My rejection of the label merely reflects my insistence that it’s my right to define my own identity in terms that work for me. Of course, I do hope that living more openly as a genderqueer person can have a positive political effect, in addition to just making me happy. My hope is that I can provide an example of a life lived outside of the various dichotomies (man/woman, gay/straight, trans/cis) that we’re so addicted to.
It should go without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that my views and decisions on these matters are meant to apply only to me, my life, and my body. I fully support everyone else to be who they feel they are. People who go through the ordeal of physically transitioning (including those who have as little chance of passing as I would have) remain my personal heroes. My life works for me, and I fully support other genderqueer and trans people who are making their lives work for them, wherever that leads.
The other thing Queer Theory has taught me is that nobody else gets to police my gender. If I do something stereotypically masculine, that’s not evidence that I’m “really” a man, any more than it would be if someone biologically female were doing the same thing. Similarly, as much as it’s tempting in an account like this to mention that I played with dolls with my sister as a kid, or that those silly online “guess your gender” tests always read me as female, or that I’ve cried watching Glee, none of that matters either. I’m not a set of traits or tropes; I’m a person, and I know what my identity is, and I just told you. It’s tempting but ultimately wrongheaded to view my genderqueer identity as an “explanation” for my various cultural interests. I don’t doubt that there’s a straight man out there who is really into Betty Boop, feminism, Lady Gaga, and Queer Theory. I’d like to meet that straight man and take him out for a drink. I, however, am not that straight man. I’m a feminine-identified, male-bodied, somewhat-bisexual-but-tending-toward-women genderqueer film scholar. With a beard.
CONTRIBUTOR: Dustin L
DATE ADDED: 2010-07-22 15:18:12
COLLECTION: Personal Reflections
ITEM TYPE: Document
CITATION: Dustin L, "On Coming Out as Genderqueer; or, My Life as a Bearded Lady," in HACKGENDER, Item #52, http://hackgender.org/items/show/52 (accessed March 8, 2014).
About the Work
- Dustin L
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