Why I’m Awkward When You Ask Me What My Pronouns Are.

Me, my sister, and friend. First day of school 1997

Last night I was closing up shop with my coworker Darren at Bishops, the hair salon where I’ve been working for six months. We were chatting a bit, and he was telling me what a great job I’m doing and how I should feel free to ask him for help whenever I need it. Darren’s been a great resource for me in my new career, and I’ve learned a lot just by watching him cut hair. Then, seemingly out of nowhere he said,  “Hey, I’ve actually never directly asked you what your pronouns are.” 

Asking for someone’s pronouns is becoming more and more commonplace, and it’s a practice I’m on board with. I’ve come to realize over the last few years, as more and more of my friends come out as trans or nonbinary, that you really can’t know someone’s gender until they tell you how they identify. I love that idea, that you can’t assume to know a person’s gender by their outward appearance, and until you know, it’s best to refer to that person by the gender neutral pronoun “they.” Our family is friends with another family with two kids and the parents noticed that their younger child didn’t seem to be exhibiting any specific male or female characteristics so they decided to refer to that child as “they” until they were able to choose for themselves, the label they felt comfortable with. 

How I answered Darren was this: “I like the term nonbinary because I like the fluidity of it, but I’m not sure if that’s the term I want to use for myself. I feel like I’ve fought so hard to be comfortable with being female.” After a moment I said, “I guess that’s not a very good answer.” A couple years ago at a Christmas party someone casually asked me, “What are your pronouns?” I froze for a second then said, “she/her, as far as I know.” 

I’ve wondered, what is so hard for me about that question? Why can’t I clearly assert that I’m a woman? What is all this fumbling about? And I think what it is is that I feel like I already went through my gender reevaluation back in my teen years. When I was 15, 16, 17, I didn’t feel like a girl. I had a feminine body for sure- curvy, with hips and breasts much larger than I was comfortable with. I got a lot of unwanted attention for my breasts. I also had cropped hair and thick body hair and wore boyish clothes most of the time. I was envious of boys- their lean, muscled bodies, the way they could wear their facial hair without shame, the way they weren’t expected to do themselves up with makeup. I suffered from acne and hated the time I spent in the bathroom, cleansing and exfoliating and covering up my skin with products, not to mention all the time spent shaving, plucking, and primping. I was attracted to boys but I also wanted to be the boys I was attracted to. All my heroes were men. Honestly I was a little embarrassed for women and didn’t like being associated with them. I decided for a while that I was a gay boy. I didn’t know anyone who was transgender at the time, in my world or even on TV. Actually I knew of one transgender person, Kate Bornstein, who I learned about from reading her memoir, “Gender Outlaw” (borrowed from my wild, artist mother). This was in the mid 90’s. I think if I had known of the term nonbinary at the time I would’ve been thrilled and latched onto it like a life raft. 

Me and my sister, first day of school 1998

But what ended up happening was when I was 18 I was able to get a breast reduction. I went from a DDD to a C cup and felt truly liberated. Suddenly my gender crisis just didn’t seem relevant anymore. Instead of feeling like a gay boy I felt more like a boyish girl. Funny that the decrease in cup size helped me feel more like a girl but it was really that I wasn’t resisting femininity so hard anymore. It felt easier to be a girl, not such a burden. And that was the beginning of not only feeling ok about being female, but really sinking into it, embracing it with a fierce pride. In college I ended up spending a lot of my time with women because even though I have remained consistently attracted to men, most of my best friends are lesbians- it must be something about their blend of masculine and feminine that I relate to and feel comfortable around. 

Even now, when filling out a new patient form for a doctor’s office or routine survey, I feel good about marking the female box, even if there’s a nonbinary option. And with that always comes a relief, that I identify with the gender that I was born with. I’m aware of what a privilege that is. 

Ok but this nonbinary thing is still appealing to me. Because the truth is, no matter how proudly I can state “I am woman!!!” There’s a part of me that’s like, “Yes, and also I’m still such a flaming gay dude.” And I’m also neither of those things. But since I’ve already had my gender exploration I don’t particularly care much what my label is. I’m aware that I tend to be dudelier than most women, but I also understand that the term “woman” is a big enough category to include dudely women like me. 

I think when someone inquires about my pronouns I’m hesitant to say “she/her” and leave it at that because that makes it sound like I haven’t done my homework and I’m just going the lazy route, taking what I’ve been given. I want them to know I’ve given it some serious thought, that I’ve considered other options and decided that women rock and I’m honored to share their title. But I also wonder if there’s a part of me that’s afraid to make the leap from “she” to “they”, not wanting to be dramatic or make people around me uncomfortable. 

Really I would love it if we could all just be nonbinary- just people, without needing to specify further. If we could make choices about our hairstyle, wardrobe, career, body language, hobbies, based on our desires and not so influenced by how our gender is supposed to act and look. Maybe that’s why I like being female. I like to show that I can be a woman who’s not necessarily conforming to all the female stereotypes. I can choose what being a woman means to me. 

The mullet is the perfect blend of masculine and feminine. How did I live this long without one?

Woman Love

Last night I was having dinner with my family, including my mom who had just gotten back from a three week trip visiting friends and family in San Diego. We were eating Tom Kha soup that Benny and I had made with ingredients from Fubon, the huge Asian food store nearby. I mentioned that I tried not to ladle any hot Thai peppers into anyone’s soup but to be careful just in case. It jogged a memory of a time when I was eating the same soup at a Thai restaurant and did, in fact, eat one of those peppers.

“That was the same night that we went to see The Vagina Monologues,” I reminded my mom. “And I was so high off that pepper that the whole night just blew my mind. In fact, that was maybe the first time that I really felt proud of being a woman.”

“I hadn’t made that connection, that that was the same night,” my mom said.

“What an amazing experience,” I said. “And I wrote it all down.”

My mom’s eyes widened. “Really!” She said. “You should look for it.”

After dinner I put on a head lamp and rummaged through the storage closet, going through my journals until I finally found it. As I read the entry aloud to my mom later that night I was struck by a few things- by how full and rich and complex my life was at that time, as a 19 year old who had returned home for the summer after a year at Chico State, and also how committed I was to getting the story down. This description is only a portion of the entire entry because so much had happened in the previous day and night and I knew at the time how important it was to just surrender to my journal for a couple hours and get everything on paper. As I was looking for this entry I found a journal labeled July 2000-August 2000. An entire notebook filled in four weeks.

Also what struck me is how, up until that night, I had been pretty ambivalent about my gender, often denying my female-ness and looking for ways to express myself as more masculine. I wasn’t necessarily anti-woman, I was just more pro-man. I felt that I hadn’t really heard a convincing case in favor of being a woman. I didn’t personally relate to many characteristics commonly viewed as female. My own identity lingered in an in-between space of not female and not male. I didn’t spend too much time thinking about labels and gender identity, I mostly just tried to pretend the whole argument was nonexistent. This was the first time I felt a power in my femininity.

vaginas

June 2, 2001

I wore a pair of soft, loose, cotton pants and a light blue long sleeved shirt with gold trim. When Mom arrived I went out to the car- Karen and Deborah were with her. They looked flushed and dazzling, excited about the night and asking me dozens of questions about my new life. We drove downtown and found a parking spot, and then went to dinner at a fancy Thai restaurant, with high white walls and small bright lights hanging from wire thread. We ordered coconut soup, spinach with mushrooms, tofu and rice and other scrumptious things. Mary arrived, looking like Judy Garland, and another of my mom’s friends who I’d never met arrived grinning and strutting with her arms in the air. She had just got back from a long mountain hike and camping trip.

I felt wonderful and strange with these five incredible women, almost like I was hanging out with my big sister and her grown up friends. I was amazed by them, awed and adoring. Watching my mom from across the table, she seemed to be someone else, distant and wild and new, and I missed the feeling of being a daughter. I was left out of most of the conversations as they soared higher and louder with each other. I was mostly content to watch and listen.

When the soup came, my first bite was of a red hot pepper. Apparently you aren’t supposed to eat them- but not only had I eaten it, I’d chewed on it for a while before I swallowed it. It was surprisingly and extremely painful, my whole mouth burned and moaned and turned inside out, my eyes watered and my sinuses cleared. Anything else I put in my mouth made it burn even worse, and it burned for a long time. Afterwards though, everything tasted absolutely exquisite.

We walked to Spreckles theater, and on the way there Mary asked me questions about what I had been going through and I told her stories about the people I know, and Scott’s farm, and my amazing life in Chico. As I told her, I felt like I was back there and I was exuberant and so thankful for my life.

When we arrived at the theater, women were everywhere. They crowded the sidewalk, they spilled in and out of the doors, they loomed and gleamed in their high heels and skirts, their collective voices made rushing waves of sound through the night of filled streets and blaring music. The night grinned and breathed, it swayed and spun, crowds of life and joy and yearning, the streets of San Diego.

The excitement was addictive- I felt the anticipation and glamour, all around me were silk dresses, high priced drinks, make-upped faces, white pillars, intricate ceilings. I hadn’t expected anything like this, especially for something called “The Vagina Monologues!”

We were ushered into the theater with the rest of the crowd and took our seats. The room was medium sized but gave the illusion of wealthy expanse. Tall ceilings, several balconies, bronze statues of naked women posing near the roof, carvings and curlicues in white and gold.

The show was incredible, inspiring, authentic, beautiful. Three amazing actors, seated and telling stories, taking on the characters of an old woman, a young lesbian, a girl who had been genitally mutilated, a woman who gave other women pleasure for a living, a woman whose husband detested hair, a woman who learned to love her vagina, and other personas. I was completely entranced the entire time. I learned so much about my body and how other women view their bodies. I felt a kinship with females that I’d never known before. I burst out laughing at surprising times and found myself teary-eyed at stories I wouldn’t have thought would affect me. I was pulled to these women, to the stage. I felt at one with the audience, the rowdy, cheering, sobbing, laughing audience. I looked around at all the women and I saw us as sisters. I imagined all the vaginas in the theater and I loved every one of them. I felt like a mother, a nurturer- and became empowered with that feeling of nurturing.

But most of all, I felt a deep pride- a pride that soared in all of us. I saw us raise our heads higher, sit up straighter, smile wider and with an ancient knowledge. I saw the love we had in ourselves, of ourselves; a love and pride that gets squelched by so many things, and fed by so little. We were awakened, we were reminded, of how glorious we are, how beautiful and how strong.

When we left, we left beaming, reborn. Tears in our eyes, we walked differently. I wanted to throw my arms around everyone. I was electrified- grinning and tingling as I strutted down the street with Mom and Deb, running my eyes over rivers of people as we fought our way down busy sidewalks. I’d never seen downtown so exciting, so packed with life, so loud and wild and bright. I could almost see the money flowing from pockets into cash registers- dark eyes and painted lips, shiny shoes wherever I looked and new smells at every block- steam and smoke billowing from vents, hot night, sharp moon, the buildings loomed with flashing windows, endless. I felt hot and desirable, awake and open, swelled with confidence. I loved the city then, no desire for quiet rivers and heavy trees, crickets and bonfire smoke. I wanted alcohol, I wanted all night dance clubs, I wanted to flaunt my body, I wanted to spend all my money and collapse drunk on a velvet couch wearing a slinky dress. This is it, I knew, I felt, I sighed, and I went home, and I slept.

 

Illustration by Wanda Felsenhardt

 

In Defense of the Color Pink.

If there is a Most Hated color, it’s gotta be  pink. I don’t think any other color carries so much controversy. Especially now, in these gender neutral times, pink has even more power. Wearing it makes a statement. Refusing to wear it makes a statement. It’s almost impossible to wear pink casually, thoughtlessly.

I think I went through a pink-hating phase as a kid. Purple was obviously the superior color. Pink was my sister’s trademark. Then later purple became lame, and green was the new favorite color. But in my teens, I think sometime after my short lived Goth phase and coinciding with my punk phase, pink made a serious comeback. I came to realize that, as a traditionally “feminine” color, it had been shunned by much of society as a weak, wussy color. Boys didn’t wear it, and most girls didn’t either- only girly girls, and then it was a pastel pink. I started wearing a lot of magenta and dyeing my hair bubble gum pink. My friend Chelsea who had spiky black hair and a “Monroe” piercing liked wearing pink and red together, and she looked like a walking Valentine, singed at the edges.

Later I went through a hippie/tomboy phase, which I’m still kinda in, but I never lost my love of pink. I’m comfortable in pink, I wear it defiantly. And I’ve wondered if maybe I’m more comfortable in it than some women because I’m more masculine in a lot of ways, and pink is my way of tipping the scales a bit. Just like a man wearing pink, I feel comfortable enough in my masculinity to embrace my feminine self.

Now I have a two year old daughter. Sometimes I dress her in pink. (Admittedly, this is partly because pink clothes are often on sale.) Sometimes she wears head to toe pink. Other days she wears red and black, blue and green, or brown and orange. But I’d be lying if I said I don’t consider the public’s view of her when I choose her clothing. And the times when I feel most aware of this is when I dress her in pink. After all, I know a few moms who have actually told me, “I will never dress my daughter in pink.”

Mainly, I want people to know that I dress her in pink not because she’s a girl and that’s what girls are supposed to wear. I like to think that if she were a boy I would be just as inclined. I want people to understand that pink is just a color, a beautiful one, and choosing to avoid it is just making it more powerful. I hope they can see that I’m embracing the femininity of pink in a Grrrl Power kind of way, a backlash against all the pink haters. But most of all, I hope they see my daughter as a person first, and a girl second.