My Gender Is: Mind Your Business

To me, identifying as a woman feels like a final answer to a question I didn’t hear properly but have to know the answer to in order to leave the room. It’s not even the answer that gets me the most points, but it’s the only one I was taught. I know I’m genderqueer like I know there’s gallons of blood in me. It’s a fact as much as a feeling, but not something I could easily prove because it would be to my detriment as much as for the inquisitor's enjoyment. When I realized that I was genderqueer — that you can be genderqueer, that you may not identify as the gender assigned to you at birth, that sex and gender are not the same thing, that there’s a multitude of realities of both — I felt like I was given permission to run and breathe a little easier than I had before. After that freedom settled onto my shoulders I realized my new burden would be to continually make the choice between sharing this fruit of knowledge in order to explain myself, or to keep it and eat it on my own and stay nourished on my personal run through the world. I have to make this choice every day and all the time, and I have no idea if generosity will bring me harm each and every time.

Given I have enough garbage to navigate daily as queer mixed femme whose experiences are already questioned and capitalized upon, I try to mostly choose the latter. I continue to choose it. I decided years ago that my approach to explaining this part of me would be to try to explain it as little as possible. I have found, however, that a certain kind of ally likes to announce most labels for me on my behalf wherever I go, often to people whom I know and they don’t. It makes me feel used, and I know I’m supposed to feel grateful. When I see or hear strangers introduce me as “Arabelle, genderqueer” to people they don’t even know, to rooms I’m unfamiliar with, in public spaces where I can’t address the dangers first, I feel like a specimen with all the lights bearing down. I don’t want it. I want you to see me as a person first; neutral parties until determined otherwise. Why is that so hard?

It’s not that I’m afraid of “coming out” as genderqueer all the time either. I wouldn't describe my reluctance to have these conversations each time they’re possible as cowardice, or surrender, because that would imply I would feel value added to who I was if they understood me on my own terms, and that isn’t true. My privacy matters more to me than being seen “correctly” in a space inhospitable to empathy, where nonbinary people are already subject to abuse and violence on a daily basis. It means spending less time legitimizing myself to people I’m not invested in — I don’t want to work for them to see me as their equal when that is already my birthright.

I do selfhood in small ways — when asked for a bio or “about” statement with my work, I use my proper pronouns; when someone approaches me to take part in a project on the basis of gender, I correct them and check if they still relate upon new knowledge. I’m asked to be on panels or do interviews about “women’s empowerment” all the time, and so the course correction is frequent and mundane. My gender and pronouns are not listed on my résumé, and I don’t naturally enter conversations with it as leading topic. This is actually the most I’ve ever explained my stake in the subject — it is not something I enjoy explaining, but I feel compelled to write it down. I’m trying to explain the complexity of what I feel when I’m treated as a concept first, person second, and knowing I’m expected to be thankful I’m entertained at all.

I know in most ways that I’m actually lucky to be seen as a cis woman; that I get to pass through spaces and encounter less overt violence than most. That others read me as a cis woman still has never protected me from intimate partner violence, sexual harassment, or other forms of institutionalized violence, though — it is just theoretically less frequent and more pathological. Passing as cis, to me, means waking up every day knowing I’m never going to be read as who I am by most people, but also that I logically should be relieved of the burden of fighting for my specific personhood. It means asking the questions: Who gets to be seen as who they are? Who has to do “the work” of educating, and of becoming educated? What work must be done to prove me as real? And to whom? Why? How?!

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