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living in your own head, in your own body, you should be the expert in your own existence. and yet, the constant upload of norms and mores and values and beliefs blocks all but the most in-depth existential understanding of self.

i only ever remember feeling like me. i was called “girl”, but that was just a word, a way to sort. in the patriarchy, it was often a way to sort downward.

as a kid, i was more interested in rocks and shells and sticks and vast games of pretend than toys, although holy shit! what i wouldn’t have given for a fleet of caterpillar-yellow tonka trucks when i was a small person. my play uniform was a long dress or full skirt and a pair of heavy boots for bashing around in the woods or the river. i was a small human, a wee upright ape. i was never a girl.

i remember being furious while playing star wars with the boys up the road. i always, always had to be leia, surrendering my own red light saber and my opportunity to be the vicious and conflicted villain for a blaster and a supporting role. every time. there wasn’t any animosity from my pals. there was just an understanding that i was a girl and a girl could only be leia. full stop.

as i grew, i understood that i was supposed to perform femininity. it was the 80s; i made execrable attempts at big hair and heavy eyeliner and slim jeans with zips at the ankle. how i longed for a pair of fawn-colored work boots with steel toes! the more i tried, the worse i fared at my disguise, which only made me more angry. i developed modest curves and i hated them. so i developed bad posture and an eating disorder, to hide and starve away my hips and breasts.

my teenage years were an exercise in costumes. without understanding that i was giving the finger to performative womanhood, i donned ridiculous things with an angry internal laugh. petticoats. bloomers. big boots. ballet shoes. cat suits. army surplus. pink fluff and black scum. i told the whole world that i was fed up without ever realizing that i was fed up. i was called “dyke”. “lezzie”. “bitch”. “ugly”. every time i was alone in a crowd, someone jeered at my gender performance without even having the language to really hurt me. like teens everywhere, i proudly donned the badge of Misunderstood.

the grunge era finally freed me to be socially acceptable and comfortable in my clothing. flannel shirts. big jeans. boxers on girls. suede sneakers. doc martens. i found my outer skin and no one hated me for it. as a young adult, i found the freedom to just be a me again, at least on the outside. i still felt pressure to perform feminine sexiness. red velvet thongs and lace fripperies hid shamefully under my corduroy and flannel and denim. i couldn’t help but punish myself with femaleness: shaved bare, oiled, and wrapped in a satin bow for the male gaze. because i liked the male gaze. i desperately and genuinely wanted the male gaze. all over me. along with male hands and male lips. i was a girl. a straight girl. who wanted straight girl things. and i was bad at all of them.

motherhood gave me my first taste of what it felt like to be a woman. hormones are marvelous. i felt strong. feminine. beautiful. fecund. as a single mother, even when the hormones wore off, i never really got back the urge to perform. i was broke, busy, tired. i didn’t have time to care about the window dressing. i didn’t think much about gender, my own or anyone else’s. i didn’t have the luxury of exploration. i made a few half-hearted attempts at normal straight relationships with nice, non-threatening men who looked good in theory but had no chemistry in practice. those relationships all failed and made me determined to live my own life, alone and at liberty to make my own choices and be my own person. it was the only way.

two years ago, during the COVID lockdown, i was working from home, pleasing only myself, living in isolation, and feeling so authentic. i didn’t feel like i should pipe down in meetings or cross my legs or defer to anyone. i didn’t care how my hair presented or whether my shoes matched my clothes. and then i had an epiphany. one that should have come much earlier. one that i’d blocked out and struggled against for every moment of my life, but somehow never once recognized in forty-five years of living in my own body and mind: i wasn’t a girl. i wasn’t a boy, either. i was just me. i finally had the experience of mindful self and the freedom of time and space to really see outside the binary. and i finally had language to use to describe it.

my kids’ generation is making inroads against gender norms. they’re free with their pronouns and free to explore their identities. it’s not easy for them yet. i hope someday it will be easy. but they’ve normalized the language enough that i could finally meet myself on neutral ground and identify myself as a queer non-binary person. a person for whom “they” and “them” describe my truest self. not a mother, but a parent. not a daughter, but a child. not a woman, but a person. someone who could be not-a-girl, but still be attracted to men. the realization was beautiful and liberating.

i’m still afraid a lot. i’m afraid that people i love and respect won’t accept the me that is real and honest. i’m afraid to reveal my nature to men, regardless of our relationship, because it is, in itself, a reason for rejection. a reason for abuse. a reason for someone to think they could hurt or kill me.

my nature is “unnatural”. “aberrant”. i am a “freak”. which is heartbreaking. because it’s only in the middle of my life that i’m perfectly, peacefully happy with who i am and how i move through my world. i have more to give now than i ever did when i was lying to myself, angry with everyone, wounded, and flagellating myself for always being wrong. i love absolutely everything more today than i ever did before. i love myself and, in loving myself, i’m better poised to love the world: sunsets and ice cream and dogs and grass and snow and other humans, too. i love things i never loved before and am full up to the top with love for things i’ve always loved as much as i could. in the before times. when i was a girl. when i wasn’t me.

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