Here’s what I’m puzzling over right now:
1) I want to write a character whose experience of gender is like mine.
2) I’m not sure what that even means.
Lemme back up.
I use she/her pronouns, and there’s an “F” on my birth certificate,* ,and I’ve never felt much need to change that. I keep my hair super short and wear men’s clothing when I can find any that fits. (That’s a lie—it never fits, and I wear it anyway. I wear women’s clothing too, because it actually fits, and because.) I’ve belonged to wonderful groups of women that I’ve been proud to be part of.
But the word “woman” feels jarring on me. Like it’s the wrong word, like it hangs on me as ill-fittingly as the men’s shirts I keep trying to wear. (They always balloon in the back. Why??)
I’ve been quietly trying on the label “genderqueer.” And I mean really quietly, like maybe-I’ve-mentioned-it-to-three-people quietly. I can do that; as a girl-looking person in mixed-gender, vaguely masculine clothing, I get way less shit for it than 1) a person assigned female at birth in fully male clothing, 2) a person assigned male at birth who wears anything feminine ever, 3) people who are out about being non-binary, and, possibly, 4) women in general. There are massive privileges of race and class and appearance and location and a lot of things that contribute to how little shit I’m given. And I have it easy in that being misgendered isn’t the awful, invalidating gut punch for me that it is for many people. So mostly nobody asks, and I don’t mention it.
On the one hand, why talk about it? I don’t really care what pronouns you use for me (though I love being taken for male, except by upset people in bathrooms). I’m fine with my name (which, granted, is kinda neutral). And on the scale of the misery that gender dysphoria can cause, I have barely any. I keep asking myself: Is it just that our culture has such a narrow definition of “woman” that nobody rests easy under the label? Am I really gender-variant enough to bother mentioning?
(And am I betraying feminism? Am I abandoning my female friends? Am I undermining my trans friends? Am I doing this for attention?)
But I remember every moment when a friend who knew my gender identity paused to acknowledge it. I remember how my partner knew it intuitively, how it shocked him that anyone knew me and didn’t know. Those people saw me. It would be a far lonelier world if nobody did.
And, of course, my silence contributes to the silence.
So. Can I do it? Can I write a character like me?
I don’t know. I’d like to. Fiction, at its best, is one of the most intimate entries we have into another mind. I know there are books out there with non-binary characters. I’m looking to read more of them.
But I’ve barely conceptualized this thing to myself. Gender isn’t the pronouns or the clothes or the name or the personality traits or the interests or the job. It’s a huge force in a person, but it’s an ineffable one, irreducible to component parts. I know when a character in a book wears an identity different from mine, but I don’t know how to express one I recognize.
I’ve seen it, though, and seeing it is like being a fish that’s spent a lifetime on land falling unexpectedly and miraculously into water.
*My birth certificate is also a photocopy with several cross-outs and the wrong last name, which involves a long and currently irrelevant story about how my grandfather was secretly adopted. What I’m saying is, it’s not an infallible document.
PHOTO: The author, Noel Dwyer