What follows is the story of how I came finally to embrace my gender identity in my forties. Being the femme I am feels settled, solid, and true, just as much of the rest of my middle age does. I identify as a sovereign, queer, cis femme, assigned female at birth and brought up as the elder sister of a younger (also cis) brother. It’s that first part, though—the sovereign, queer, cis femme part—that this essay addresses. (We could add a whole bunch more about my fabulously aquamarine and cerulean fish scales and my iridescent butterfly wings, but I’ve left those out for now.)
It also includes quite a bit of discussion about my life as a young Big Dyke on Campus and later, my life as a priestess, a creator of magick and ritual within a set of ethics including authenticity, integrity, compassion, wisdom, and love. These two identities are essential in understanding the development of my identity as a queer femme. They each play their part in my story.
It is those last two words you need to remember: my story. This story is only my story and must not be taken to mean that I consider queer femme identity in any way superior or even compared to any other gender identity.
One of the things I’ve always said about queer people is that we are natural storytellers. Because of the water we swim in, the air we breathe, we’ve had to examine our experiences and find a way to make sense of them. The rivers of our lives may have jumped their banks several times, or even over and over again, but in our hearts, we know we are whole people. We know—and we teach each other—that we can find meaning in the narrative, in the story of our lives.
So I’ve thought of this storytelling superpower, this river-jumping, first and most often in terms of my sexual orientation, my sexuality as a pansexual woman. How I’ve identified as asexual and embracing celibacy – ready to become a religious sister – in high school. Then as the Big Dyke on Campus, a lesbian who wore bright lipstick but had shaved my head, wore earrings so pointy and sharp you could cut yourself on them, and sported a black biker jacket with a cock ring on one side and a set of handcuffs on the other, all while smoking Marlboro Reds out of a silver cigarette extender. I thought of this presentation as part of my sexual orientation, mind you. Not my gender. Not yet.
Lesbian, lesbian, lesbian, even though I kept dating non-binary people (I had no language for that identity in the ‘90s) and trans men in transition. After that, a couple of years into a significant relationship with a cis man, I decided, well, maybe I was bisexual.
Finally, in my forties, more than a decade into a relationship with another cis woman, I came out as pansexual. Suddenly, I felt that kerchunk as things fell into place. The unease I had felt for years, “Am I bi? Am I lesbian? What does it mean that I’ve had trans partners?” just vanished. It vanished, and I felt calm, peaceful, and like both my past and my present made sense.
But what about my gender? What’s the story there? IS there even a story? I mean, I was assigned female at birth; I was brought up in a household with one brother and I was definitely the sister; I have never thought of myself as anything other than a woman. You’d think that then, because I have that gender privilege, I never had to think about it. But because of who I am and how I move in the world, I have.
Blessing, luck, personality, and the effect of being fat on my perceived gender have all converged to allow me to expand my queer storytelling superpower. And I am so grateful for all those things coming together in such a way that I have a narrative, a story to tell.
The story begins in “the midst of my life’s way.” I used an exercise on myself that I had used twenty years ago in teaching others about sexual orientation.
I thought to myself, if I close my eyes and imagine that my body was not relevant somehow… if I close my eyes and just feel into who I am and what my gender expression and performance most want to be… if I close my eyes and forget about assignment or other people’s understanding or what I felt like I had to be, what do I get?
I got a history of images. Images of my gender evolving over time, images of comfort and discomfort.
First, I got images of the times I didn’t feel like I was “right with my gender.”
Gender expressions, none of which were bad or wrong or incomplete in themselves, but which never managed to express a mature and deep understanding of my gender from the inside out.
I watched the river of my gender understanding slowly meander into the shape of images of myself when I wore baseball caps—sometimes backwards, even.
I saw the river wind into images of myself in a lesbian-mandated in-between… a place I was never really comfortable.
I watched the river as it was carved in my family—I did the dishes, cooked, and wasn’t allowed to mow the lawn. But my parents were feminists and my father encouraged me to open the door for those behind me, to open the passenger’s door, to stand on the outside when we walked down the street.
Riding my bicycle through the streets with no shirt on, even when, at eleven, my breasts were just starting to bud. Beautifully mixed messages, carved into my heart, the rivers of my upbringing.
And then the river moved again, thanks to bullies and terror and the fear that school crowbarred into my soul.
Images of myself in high school, when my dear cis boy friends told me, “Oh, but I don’t think of you as a girl,” and it was supposed to be a compliment, but all it ever felt like was dismissal.
Then a little more freedom, the river widened a bit, but still, my gender was still made of fear, made of hatred of my body, made of hiding…
The river straightened out in its wider banks and slowed down–images of myself in high school and early college trying to dress to hide my body. Trying to hide my size 18-22 self even though I was cute as shit, if I do say so myself. (I would totally have dated me.) Sweatshirts over waistless dresses. Hiking boots and skirts and no makeup because makeup was a tool of the patriarchy that made women feel less than worthy if they didn’t wear it.
But then the river made a big jump, the riverside flooded, what had seemed straight and slow became curved and rapid, leaping down the mountain toward the sea.
There I was, that fierce college student who emerged, just for a bit, in the 1990’s. The one I told you about who I’d only thought of in terms of my sexual orientation and not my gender.
I thought about how I put on my armor.
Not just my jacket (it actually said DIVA on the back, just like that, in big block letters. I mean, really?!), and not just my shaved head.
But the lipstick that went with them. How I matched it to the awning of the building in front of which I had organized a street theater action.
The earrings. Those earring that were a gift from my very first girlfriend. A girlfriend, I suddenly recalled with significance, who was very femme and couldn’t imagine being any other way. Those earrings were silver and when I say they were sharp, I mean they were conical, swinging weapons. They were long and shining silver and came down to a razor sharp point, just above my shoulders.
The cigarette extender, for pity’s sake. Come ON!
And then there were my favorite Mary Janes ever (well, besides the ones I was blessed to have when I was three years old—shiny, and with the little cutouts). They were plain satin black with those great chunky heels that meant I could dance all night in them. I wore them when I dated Raegan, that gorgeous butch who looked like a young Elvis. (swoon) He eventually decided his own gender journey was going to take a turn, that butch didn’t cover it, and that in point of fact, he was a trans man. But this is my story not his.
And my story will continue in another post…look for A Femme Gender Story: Part Two!