“Do you like living in this house?”
I nodded, too busy crying to say anything intelligible. Even so, it was a lie. I hated living in that house, but the acute knowledge that it was the only house available changed my answer quite a bit. My parents lived in cars, with friends, on the street. Wherever. They were out having adventures. The kind of adventures where you don’t have to go to school. Or eat breakfast. Where sometimes your mom’s boyfriend got crazy and choked you, and sometimes you had to run away in the middle of the night and the wind cut through your Care Bear night gown like the asphalt cut up your feet as you were dragged across the highway in a fog of speed-psychosis.
“Do you like riding horses?”
This time my nod wasn’t a lie. Because a horse is too stupid to be dishonest. If he kicks you, bucks you, bites you, you did something. Some actual and real list of things that horses can not process. With a horse, it’s clear. He bit you because he can’t see his own teeth. He’ll never bite you because he changed his mind and he actually can see his teeth after all. Not like at home where you get hit for talking and hit for not talking.
“Then you know what you have to do.”
That was a regular conversation growing up. Sometimes it was horses or other extracurricular activities; sometimes it was being allowed to see my friends and go to school. Sometimes it got dark and I was reminded that, at least in this house the guy beating on me wasn’t a stranger. What if I went back with my mom or into foster care and it was a new guy with new rules? What if he used weapons? At least here with grandpa it was good old fashioned yelling, shoving, smacking and punches. Not a lot of punches either; one or two to prove a point. Isn’t that better than those foster parents who starve their kids and beat them with pipes?
Again and again, I had to conclude that it was.
I’ve been trying to write this for years now. Not about the abuse, you guys know I could write about that in my sleep. I’ve journaled, and processed, and shared, and inventoried my feelings about that a million times. I’ll probably do it a million more. A childhood is the kind of thing one finds oneself constantly unpacking. Such a small amount of time with such a massive mental footprint. It’s a testament to the wonder of the developing human brain. All that information just sucked up like a sponge.
No, what I’ve been trying to write about is the idea of male and female that got put inside my head. That the male/female relationship is an exchange of goods for services.
Men provide and women serve. Men provide houses, and women serve as punching bags. Men provide grocery money, and women serve food they may or may not be punished for making poorly. Men provide horse riding money and women serve an unending supply of supplication and self-deprecation; talking, walking, waking, and sleeping at his command.
Who in their right mind would choose to be a woman in this context?
I’m a child of the 80s. The whole time this dire home situation is going on, I’m still getting told I can be anything. I’m watching Diane Keaton and Lily Tomlin with shoulder pads out to here and giant cell phones and quarterly reports. I’m seeing my parent’s butch lady and femme man friends, and I’m hatching a plan.
I’m coming to a pretty standard conclusion that I don’t have to act like a woman. I don’t have to be this weak thing. I don’t have to cry into the dinner I made while some man scolds me for not making it well enough. I don’t have to be still and quiet while someone other than me decided if I’m about to get fucked. I don’t have to sneak, and I don’t have to simper, and I don’t have to beg for it to stop. I never have to do any of those thing if I just keep myself as far away from female space as possible.
In the poem Beautiful and Cruel, Sandra Cisneros writes
I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure.
I am one who leaves the table like a man,
without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.
So, I sit with my legs open, I take up space, I am loud, I swear, curse, smoke, and fight. I don’t cry, I don’t flinch, and I don’t ever back down from a challenge. Like the grandfather I am so afraid of, I take command of a room. I refuse to compromise. I bluster and rant and attack. I do not give, I am not nice, and I will not listen. To anyone.
It feels very safe to be this person. This man.
Briefly, following the incident where I woke up with DD tits and amazing hair, I courted the male gaze. But it wasn’t long before I shaved the hair off and covered the tits – as much as is possible – in over sized shirts and a pronounced forward hunch.
Ironically, giant tits are completely useless when one is trying to take up space.
Tits are like bat-signals to misogynistic hetero-harassers. Tits are the opposite of what I want to highlight about myself.
What started as a childhood safety blanket is now a dear part of who I am. As well as a problematic one. Sometimes people don’t understand where I fit. Am I deluded? A closeted lesbian, (or increasingly more these days) a transman in denial? Is it the feminism, has it eaten my brains all up, and caused me to be confused about my womanly place?
The varied combinations of gender expression, gender identity and sexual orientation can be difficult to navigate for those who are committed to a sex and gender binary that is as immutable to them as it is unreasonable to the rest of us.
Unfortunately for me, if people’s problems with my gender expression comes from a misogynistic commitment to the gender binary, then the very expression itself also comes from the same place.
A long time ago I decided that if women are weak, I won’t be a woman. Whenever I’m scared, I won’t be a woman.
So what happens when, against all common sense I am a woman?
What happens when this terrible femininity exists somewhere inside me like it does with virtually every person on this planet, whatever their gender?
Yeah, gender is largely arbitrary, but so is time, and that will fuck you up like crazy, especially if you try to ignore it. Walking around with a completely backwards gender binary in my head affects me no matter what my intentions. If my thinking is distorted, nothing good is going to flow from that.
Feeling safe is a fine idea, but what good does it do me when I am unable to empathize with my friends and family when they are emotional? When I tend to get irrational over stupid man shit like “respect?” When I myself am unable to ask for help when I need it out of a truly deadly commitment to my own internalized misogyny?
Misogyny isn’t just the fear of women, it’s the fear of becoming a woman, and all that entails. It’s a fear of getting fucked, beaten, forgotten and ignored. It’s a fear that the ego can not harbor, so it turns it into hate.
Manliness is a short list of acceptable behavior that prevents one from being a woman.
My oldest fear, my most sacred terror is not of men, but of not being a man.