Hi. I’m coming out as genderqueer.
For people who know me, and people who know what genderqueer means, this probably isn’t some big surprise. I told a couple of my friends that I was going to come out — like this, in writing — and they just assumed I was already out.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary (yes, that one that comes with Mac), genderqueer as an adjective is: “denoting or relating to a person who does not subscribe to conventional gender distinctions but identifies with neither, both, or a combination of male and female genders.”
I’m guessing most people who read my blog are familiar with some basic contemporary gender theory, but in short: gender is socially constructed. What it means to be a “man” or a “woman” is determined by our culture. Other people have gone over this shit better than me, so I’m going to drop the theory part now, point you to some additional reading, and get on with what I’m talking about.
I can’t speak in some universal way about the genderqueer experience, but I can try to speak about mine.
The first time I tried to change my name to a girl’s name was in 4th grade. This makes it one of my earliest memories. I wanted to change my name to Kelly, which references my Irish familial name. I told myself this was an acceptable thing to do, because, after all, Kelly is a boy’s name too. I didn’t do it, because I was already getting the shit kicked out of me on a regular basis. I couldn’t really figure out a way in which changing my name to what is basically a girl’s name wasn’t going to make my life worse.
I’ve had some good conversations recently with friends who are smarter than me about the ways in which we go back and retroactively defend our decisions to transition our gender presentation and identity. Why do I feel the need to tell you that I’ve always been fucking confused as to whether or not I was a boy or girl?
Before I had even a basic framework with which to understand gender, I’ve been terrified and entranced by my femininity. I wanted to take ballet, but justified it as something that football players do. In high school, I skipped gym to paint my nails. I wore lipstick, grew my hair long, and justified these things to myself as something that got me closer to the girls I hung out with. In private, I taught myself to walk in heels. I got my left ear pierced. This was the 90s, piercing your right ear was gay. God forbid anyone think that. I got my bellybutton pierced when I was 15, justified it because there was this older white trash guy I knew who had done it too. “See,” I said to myself or maybe to everyone around me, “boys can do it too.”
I was so afraid of my femininity that I instinctively hated drag queen movies. The Birdcage, Priscilla Queen of the Desert, movies like that made me cry and I’d try to leave the room or the theatre. I don’t know if I hated them because they made light of drag queens or if I hated them because I was terrified of drag queens. I expect that I was afraid because the drag queens were presented as monstrous. I was afraid because maybe I was monstrous.
By high school, I wished I’d been “born a girl.”
The first time I wore a skirt in public was 11th grade. It was an improvised, wrap-around thing. I wore it to school on “dress for success day.” A girl about two years younger than me ran by and pulled it off.
I graduated with the longest hair of anyone in my school, and I was proud of that, but I’d spent a year fighting against a clique of “popular” girls who’d taken it upon themselves to convince me to cut my hair. At one point, over the summer at yearbook camp (I’ve never claimed to be cool) they got probably fifty, sixty girls to chant “cut your hair” and to try to convince me just how hot I’d be with short hair.
Throughout the whole of my teenage years, I didn’t understand these things from a gender theory lens. I didn’t realize the great extent to which my life was impacted by my failure to perform masculinity.
In college, I had a frank conversation with two other men in which we all agreed we’d like to wear skirts on a regular basis if skirts “meant something different, socially.” Unspoken, we meant if they didn’t threaten our heterosexual masculinity.
I’m not proud of any of this.
A few years later, I learned to stop giving fucks and start wearing dresses. I took the name Margaret (as long for Magpie) probably twelve years ago, well before I’d heard the term genderqueer.
The anarchist traveler scene—hell, even the apolitical squatter scene—was pretty good to me about all these things. I used to wear this long black skirt made of such light material that I could wear it over pants and, as necessary, ball it up and stuff it into my pockets while I was still wearing it if I didn’t want to deal with harassment for wearing a skirt. One day, I was sleeping in Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan and I woke up to run off to the bathroom and my skirt fell down from my pocket.
“Hey,” a tough-as-nails, super-masculine drunk-punk squatter said, “are you wearing a skirt?”
“Yup,” I said.
“Alright,” he said. End of conversation. Failure to perform masculinity has, in my experience, been punished a hell of a lot less in street kid culture than most other environments I’ve been in. (Which is not to say this experience is universal, nor that it carries over into any appreciable feminism.)
When I did begin to hear the term genderqueer, I didn’t think it applied to me. By that point, in my mid-twenties, I’d done an awful lot of work around male feminism. Proving that men don’t have to act like dudes was damn important to me. I was a man, I just wanted to not be such a shitty one. Unlearning the toxicity of male socialization isn’t something I’ll ever stop doing.
But I was terrified that if I identified as anything other than a cisgendered man, I would be colonizing identities of resistance. Because that’s real, too. When my first book came out, in 2009, I met a fair number of women who were pretty bummed to realize I was a man. I understand that. There aren’t enough anarchist books written by women, and here’s this interesting book by Margaret Killjoy. Oh, they’re a man.
So I tried to just be the best man I could be. A man with a woman’s name who wore women’s clothes. For awhile, I called myself a transvestite. I think usually it’s a slur. I didn’t mind.
It was branching out from anarchist culture that brought my gender back into question for me. I started going to geek conventions, and I sat on panels with these cis guys, and realized… oh, shit, I’m not actually one of them. No offense to geek cis-men (any more than to any other social grouping of cis-men). Some of my smart friends tell me that gender is relative and constantly shaped and re-shaped by the people around us. Gender is sometimes more about how you stand in relation to the people who are nearby than society more broadly.
The first time I called myself genderqueer was two years back, writing an application to the writing workshop Clarion West (I was rejected, that year. I’m glad, because going this year is one of the best things that’s ever happened to me). I was trying to put into words how Margaret Killjoy was neither my legal name nor my pen name. That it was just my name.
I wrote, in the end, “Hi, my name is Margaret Killjoy, and I’m a genderqueer author.”
Proverbial angels came out from behind the proverbial clouds (the clouds were proverbial too, since I was inside) and blew their proverbial horns and I understood myself better. I didn’t really tell anyone. I didn’t tell anyone because I was convinced no one would believe me.
Hell, I have a beard most of the time.
But a few years have gone by, and I’ve told a few people, and fuck it, why am I willing to be out as an anarchist set on the destruction of all domination but I’m too scared to tell my parents that I’m not a man.
I’m not a man. I bear the toxicity of male socialization and a great deal of male privilege and the scars of failing to perform masculinity, but I’m not a man. I’m not a woman. I don’t have a gender pronoun preference. I like when people refer to me as she and they and I don’t feel misgendered when people use he.
All this shit might change.
So it goes.