Written By Lauren Thornberg.
Art by Alex Mckelly.
Content Warning: transphobia, menstruation
I don’t miss much about being in 7th grade, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling. I don’t miss noticing new zits, or my legs hurting from growing pains, or getting my first period. 7th grade is a miserable time, and I’d never want to experience it again. Despite it all, though, I do miss one thing about being 12 years old.
I miss being androgynous.
It wasn’t a choice made with any defiant intentions – I just didn’t like having long hair, so I cut it off. I wore loose-fitting clothes. I rejected pink and purple. I had a lower voice. My chest was (and still is) below sea level. To me, they were simply preferences. To the world, it was an affront to the sanctity of gender.
Nobody could tell if I was a boy or a girl. I perplexed them by being uncategorizable, and in their confusion, they often became disgusted. Maybe disgusted isn’t the perfect word, but how else is it to be described? Uncomfortable, disturbed, or affronted seem too mild. People were disgusted by me, and they made it obvious. I remember the humiliation I felt at a water park, when a child asked their mother, “Is that a boy or a girl?” Her response was a hurried “I don’t know what it is.”
It. I was an it.
But then, I went too far. Eventually, there will be consequences – that’s the lesson every gender-noncomforming kid learns. There’s a line, and when you cross it, you become an it.
I spent the next few years as an it. In the beginning, the harshness I faced was unexpected; I didn’t understand it. Before then, I had no real consciousness of gender – I never had to think about what it meant to be a girl. But then, I went too far. Eventually, there will be consequences – that’s the lesson every gender-noncomforming kid learns. There’s a line, and when you cross it, you become an it.
Once I learned about this line, I tried to never cross it, only toe it. There was only so much abuse I could handle, only so many times I could hear people call me tr*nny or he-she. Coming of age alongside social media didn’t help, especially when anonymous question-asking apps became popular. I received questions that ranged from more innocent (“are u a guy or woman? no offense”) to more malicious (“hey tr*nny, how’s that sex change coming along?”). All I had wanted was a change in hair styles, but I had gotten so much more than I expected, and it hurt. It hurt unbearably.
My self esteem had tanked, not because I felt like I was ugly or abnormal, but because I was tired of having to defend myself from the victimless crime of androgyny. I grew so weary of finding new ways to assert myself as someone who shouldn’t be bullied. In my most shameful moment, I lied to a stranger about having cancer to explain my short hair. I capitalized on the pain of others simply to minimize my own. I wanted more than to defend myself, I wanted to make a rude stranger feel guilty for even questioning my appearance. Guilt was what I wanted the world to feel, and will anyone truly feel guilty for bullying a gender-noncomforming kid? Seems not.
I’ve surrounded myself with other LGBTQA+ friends and acquaintances, and it’s been a long while since I was last bullied for anything. Life as a queer person doesn’t hurt now, but I recognize why. I’m a cis bisexual woman, and that word – woman – hasn’t been questioned for years.
I began slowly merging back into femininity. By age 14, I had pierced my ears and started wearing bright red lipstick. By 16, my closet was almost exclusively dresses. By 18, I had finally grown my hair out. By 20, that long hair was bright pink, the color I previously abhorred for its predetermined femininity. Now, at 22, it’s purple – another horrific threat to masculinity everywhere. The only vestiges of androgyny are hairy legs and a flat chest, but it’s not much.
It’s been a decade since all that hair met its fate on the floor of a salon. I’ve surrounded myself with other LGBTQA+ friends and acquaintances, and it’s been a long while since I was last bullied for anything. Life as a queer person doesn’t hurt now, but I recognize why. I’m a cis bisexual woman, and that word – woman – hasn’t been questioned for years. I’ve become enmeshed in the expectations I was given at birth. I stopped trying to limit my conformity to feminine aesthetics. I just accepted those chains and locks of womanhood, and I’m not looking for the key. I know why, too.
Because I’m scared.
And that’s the message of it all: you can’t be real if you’re not obviously, emphatically cisgender.
Personally, I’d be thrilled to be androgynous again, unconcerned with any allegiance to gender. I want to be uncategorizable, a source of frustration, confusion, anger. Well, I only want it in a vacuum. Only in theory. Only in the safest way possible, and there is no safe way. Whenever I think the world is welcoming, I’m proved wrong. I was once telling a story to a previous boss of mine about a friend who uses they/them pronouns. Halfway through, he stops me and says, “You keep saying ‘they,’ is it a ‘he’ or a ‘she’? Be real here.” And that’s the message of it all: you can’t be real if you’re not obviously, emphatically cisgender.
I’m scared. I don’t want to relive that pain. I want the path of least resistance now. After years of constant unease and worry, the relief I felt re-entering a gendered existence was palpable. Finally, I was made free by locking myself up again. Maybe someday I’ll find the key, and I’ll embrace nonconformity again. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll decide to stop my little performance of gender without even changing my appearance. There’s a world of options out there, and every day I get to decide how brave I want to be.
I think of my 12-year-old self. She knew what she wanted, but eventually it just got too difficult.
I imagine I’m not alone in my dilemma. There are plenty of cis, gender-conforming people out there wondering if what they have is what they really want. I think of my 12-year-old self. She knew what she wanted, but eventually it just got too difficult. It’s always too difficult. Society has made us a perplexing cage, but we can decide for ourselves whether or not the key is worth finding.
About The Author
Lauren Thornberg (she/her) is a 22 year-old anthropology student and writer currently living in Florida. She mostly writes about economic inequality, trauma, and gender. Other pieces of hers have been published in The Kudzu Review, The Financial Diet, and The Tallahassee Democrat.