Content Warning: Physical abuse, mention sexual advances on a minor.

The first time I had sex with my now husband, I told him roughly three things:

  • I am not really a girl, so don’t expect me to act like one and don’t treat me like one
  • Don’t ever touch my throat
  • If we’re going to fuck, I have to be in charge

Actually, what I really said was something along the lines of “I don’t want to be a man, but I really don’t act like a woman, and that bothers most people eventually. It will probably bother you eventually. I’m never going to change.” Genderqueer was barely even a LiveJournal tag.

He told me he didn’t think there were really women in the world like me, and that he’d wished for me. I told him that the qualities that attracted me to him were his gentleness, his shyness and his artistic nature. I liked that he sewed and cooked, that he liked cute things and that he could be silly. He liked that I was tough and loud, that I could tell people to fuck off as easily as I could tell them how amazing they were. I didn’t say this at the time, but I had wished for him too.

I’ve written about this a dozen times, but in my house growing up there were two genders: abuser and victim. Men did what they wanted to your body so that you could do what you wanted with their money. Or drugs. Or property in general. It’s a raw deal when you get older and realize that women can get jobs and have money of our own. It’s an especially raw deal when you look back on a childhood of trading punches for shelter and realize that you were the only one getting hit while older women told you this was woman’s lot.

Although I do remember the time my mom came home covered in blood. Head to toe. She was matted with it. She took a shower and then she left, pinkish white drops lazily drying on the plastic shower walls the only evidence she was even there.

But what does this have to do with me being queer? I know, right? That’s what I thought. Of course I didn’t identify with femaleness. Of course I’d rather act like a dude, I got the shit kicked out of me for being a little girl. Or that’s what they said. But I know a ton of people who got their asses kicked for being girls. That didn’t stop them at all.

I’ve never felt like a girl. What does a girl feel like when her mom’s boyfriend is trying to choke her to death? What does a girl feel like when a random junky is running his finger up and down the back of her sun dress telling her he thinks her “peach fuzz” is sexy? What does a girl feel like when she wakes up with her grandpa licking her mouth in the middle of the night?

Me, 1999

I’ve always had other priorities, survival being chief among them. Recovery following quick on the heels of survival. One of the smartest decisions I ever made was to keep going to 12 step meetings even after my mom dropped out. As a young atheist, I was told that “a God of my understanding” could be anything. I met people with AA chips as their gods. Trees, stuffed toys, philosophical concepts, sentences in books, laws of mechanics and everything in between. My own personal god is currently gravity coupled with a vague sense of not-knowing things. I think it’s my longest lasting god and I really like this one.

When you tell a child, desperate and alone in the world, without perspective, without prospects; who is conditioned toward abuse, who has been used and gas-lit her entire life that God can be anything, you also tell her that she can be anything. I could be a me of my own understanding. When you live with abusers who are also mentally ill or addicted to something the only way to know the truth is to get quiet and go deep inside yourself for it. Addicts will tell you that this is your fault. They will tell you that you actually like what they do (to you, with you, without you, whatever.)

One time my mom grabbed me by the neck, shoved me against the wall and screamed “STOP HURTING ME!” Which is a great tactic, because instead of fighting back, I stopped to think about the last 30 minutes of our screaming match in order to make sure that I hadn’t actually touched her at all (I hadn’t). There’s no such thing as the truth in a drug addict’s home.

Me, 2001

Nobody in the meeting tried to tell me what my problem was. First of all, we all knew. Second of all, that was mine to search, and work through and own. I think if I had gone to a therapist at that time, I would have been told a lot about what I looked like. A narcissistic hypomanic gender dysphoric codependent with attention deficit disorder and anorexia who practices self-harm and suffers from PTSD.

I did assume that as I got older, worked through some shit and matured in general that I would grow more comfortable or more natural in my femaleness. I didn’t really want to. I didn’t want to develop a sense of compassion for my abusers either, but when I did, it opened the world to me.

My resentment was so much a part of who I was that it felt like the only thing holding me up most days. Imagine my surprise when I finally saw my parents as children themselves, with abusive parents of their own. Who’s resentments against their parents lead to a life so unexamined that they turned into abusers despite their best efforts not to. It was the resentment that had grown in them like an abscess, festering under the surface until it exploded in violence and selfishness and lead them to become the one thing they said they would never be.

Resentment was more a part of me than my gender has ever been. Gender to me is just a vague sense of not speaking the same language as everyone else, but it’s one of the few aspects of my personality I have loved and enjoyed for most of my life, even when I wasn’t really sure how.

My grandmother used to say “You always have to be different.” I think she was trying to admonish me, but it also felt like a tacit acknowledgement. Maybe I am different enough. Maybe if I have to be different, I won’t be capable of getting the same results as everybody else.

My trans friends from high school and college didnt seem to have my experience. Gender was a truth they told and were imprisoned for. Gender was a trauma event that they survived. A girl tortured with boyhood, a boy forced into girlhood. I never felt like that. I still don’t.

My wedding was a revelation in this regard. When we were still in college, I told my boyfriend, now husband “you know we’re queer, right?” He disagreed. It was a conversation that went on between us for awhile. Liking to sew doesn’t make a man queer. Obviously.

Ben and me, 2003

But doesn’t it seem queer that I have no relationship to being a woman?

Why would you? The patriarchy makes womanhood a horrible fate.

Besides, we were graduating into the largest financial shitstorm in eighty years. Telling people your pronouns are zie and zier at that time was mostly a great way to never be able to pay your rent or your student loans. Singular they was still reserved for sentences like ‘someone left their umbrella in the lobby.’ So we are not queer. We are feminists.

But the wedding was different. I’ve always had a love hate relationship with weddings. Despite my best attempts to hide it, I’m a total sap. I love love. After I realized that not every marriage was an abusive farce, not every wedding a sales transaction, I felt free to enjoy the sentiment. And I do. But I never wanted to get married myself.

It felt awkward to me. I could never see myself as a bride much less a wife. I still don’t really get the whole wife thing. And don’t act like there isn’t a thing.

I am not the female half of this binary gender unit. Before we got married we were just us. Ben and Marina. One and the other.

After we announced our engagement, my inbox flooded with unsolicited advice, suggestions, and offers of help. I was dumbfounded. What about me and our long years of association would make my friends think I wanted to talk about wedding planning? Once again, it was like they were speaking a different language. All of a sudden my experience of myself and my partnership was being held into the light of gendered expectations and we were failing to deliver.

I was content in my decision to get married, it was a good time and a good plan based on our financial situation and our upcoming house purchase. It fit well in our 5-year plan to start the adoption process. I did not and still do not understand why that obligates me to get excited about flowers, a thing I have never done.

Usually when I’m not getting a gendered thing it’s just one thing. The day moves on and so do I. People who have gendered expectations of me get frustrated over time, but there’s not that many of them around now that I’m an adult and can choose my own company.

Ben and me, 2015

Getting married was about six months of things I absolutely did not understand. People got frustrated with me not understanding and I then misunderstood their frustration. One person finally asked me, exasperated, “why are you getting married if you don’t want to?” Why does me not caring about flowers and dresses have anything to do with whether or not I want to move forward in my life plans with my partner?

But that stuff does matter to many smart women who are equally as feminist as I am. Does not going crazy for flowers or caring about wedding dresses make a person queer? No. But I think it is a symptom of what makes me queer. It’s not that I have no relationship to dresses or flowers, I like them both. It’s that there is some female language I do not speak and can not learn.

Gender is a construct, but these arbitrary gender roles appeal to people because they communicate with a true part of the human experience as a man or a women. That doesn’t happen for me. Up until recently, I didn’t think it happened for anyone. I really believed that gender was completely performative; that man or woman you were trained for your role and that how well you performed it had to do with how thorough your training was. Even as I had transgender friends and loved ones for whom that was obviously not true. I trusted their experience to be real and valid, I just considered it to be one of life’s paradoxes.

Even after that, I didn’t see much of a reason to be explicit in the way my experience of gender feels different from what I’m taught I should be feeling. Compared to my feelings as a trauma survivor, as a woman in poverty, as a Latinx person, a fat person, it didn’t feel relevant. It was the least interesting thing about me.

This is easier now because times have changed. But it’s also more necessary now because the people in power have not. President Trump just initiated the next step in his plan to ban transgender people from the armed services. In Nazi controlled Europe, one of the first laws the Nazis passed was to ban Jews and the other groups they would go on to murder from civil service, like the military.

Up to this point it wasn’t a hardship to let people see my clothes and my partner and make assumptions that I was at least part of their tribe in that way. It made more sense to be a straight woman who advocated for gay and trans rights and who tried to open the door for my brothers and sisters whenever possible. There was no tortured part of me, I never felt closeted. I did feel like I wasn’t telling the whole truth when I identified as straight, as a woman, but I had larger points to make and getting into the weeds about gender felt unnecessary at the time.

Most people really and truly don’t give a shit what your gender feelings are. They want to know if you can do the job they hire you to do, if you can pick up the phone when they need to talk to you, if you’ll keep the noise down after 10pm.

Me, 1999

They consider it to be none of their business, and they will continue to think of it as none of their business when you are discriminated against and attacked, and when you are dead they will think it was none of their business who killed you. Because they have nothing to do with that sort of thing. Certainly the thing that killed you has nothing to do with regular people like them.

So people don’t ask. They assume you are like them, just like I assumed everyone else was like me, and they go on with their day. That’s all well and good when things are peaceful, when progress is steady and predictable, and when there is such a thing as a good queer. Because a good queer can open the door for everyone else. But this is different. The president’s campaign of hate is against all of us humans. Some of us just don’t realize it yet.

It’s time to be explicit. Not only is there language when there wasn’t before, there’s knowledge when there wasn’t before and I have leverage I didn’t have before. I am not straight, I am not a woman. I am not a man. If there is a word for me, it would be agender or genderqueer. Some people use the term nonbinary, which I find to be weird since all of gender, being on a spectrum, is inherently nonbinary.

Anyone who knows me will probably think this is not news. You won’t be seeing any changes in my behavior. I’ll continue to act the way I’ve always acted. I will continue to be completely unphased by whichever pronoun you refer to me with (they’re all equally meaningless as far as I’m concerned) and I will continue to be completely annoyed by the unnecessary gendering of agender things like #girlboss and guy-liner.

14 Replies to “Queer.

  1. I am so glad that I have met you! YOU ARE INCREDIBLE! This piece is one of the best things I have read from you! I love that immediately my brain goes into action processing every word. It let’s me see ideas and explore feelings I may have never been exposed to. I live who you are. I hate that to make others “comfortable”, I need a label. Bullshit! I am ME! I am Joelle….??

  2. Powerful read! I have always admired you and I am so proud to know you. Your story is insightful and your courageous transparency is inspiring. I truly believe the only way to change a persons heart is to share your story and let it rattle them from the inside out.

  3. This is super powerful. Thank you for sharing. It’s a good reminder – the “not my business” idea and the way it’s acted out and upon.

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