I’m going through my third adolescence. The first one, the one everyone goes through around middle/high school, was classified by raging hormones, a desire to fit in, and figuring out what kind of person I was/wanted to be. In some ways, my first adolescence was the most difficult, because it was only the beginning of understanding the many layers of who I am. In other ways this was the easiest period of adolescence that I’ve been through, because it’s one that everyone can relate to; anyone who has been through it understands how disorienting it can be. There is also clear language to describe this almost universal adolescent experience. My other two experiences with adolescence, coming into my sexual and gender identities, suffered from a lack of clear, inclusive language. Growing to be who I am today required all three of these adolescent periods. In order for me to understand the deepest, scariest, most confusing parts of who I am, I had to first understand the body I was born into, the way that I relate to other people, and the way that I wanted to relate to myself: lovingly and without judgement.
My first adolescence was extremely confusing. In addition to navigating the normal hormonal changes that teenagers go through, I was dealing with Graves’ Disease. Graves’ Disease is an autoimmune disorder that results in the overproduction of thyroid hormones. The side effects of this disease exacerbated the physical changes I experienced in these transformative years, took away a huge part of my identity as a competitive gymnast, tested my relationships with my friends and family, and added an extra layer of physical discomfort and awkwardness to years that are already uncomfortable and awkward. Luckily, I had quite a few things go well for me in these trying years. I had a wonderful group of friends, and I was in my first relationship with a boy; a relationship with someone whom I genuinely loved. Although I had started my life as a tomboy, dressing in boy’s clothes, rocking a buzz-cut, and relishing the moments when people mistook me for a boy, I survived adolescence as a full-blown feminine creature.
This hyper femininity came largely as a result of being “othered” by my peers. I was an easy target in elementary/middle school as a muscular, athletic, independent child who was just trying to please everyone. As much as I tried to ignore the hurtful comments and actions of my “friends,” they ate away at me. I didn’t realize how much I was being affected by their comments. I brushed bullies off so well that I even convinced myself that they didn’t bother me. My third grade teacher realized the way my peers were reacting to me, and decided to initiate a conversation about bullying and manipulation. She told me that she believed in me, and that I just had to “rise above” my peers. I loved the sentiment and the phrase, but it felt like what I actually needed to do was slide by without being targeted. I mastered the art of being extremely introspective yet extroverted. I became cautious about which parts of myself I let others see, while learning how to be liked and move through the world with minimal teasing. I learned that it was much easier to go through life fitting in than it was being true to myself. The hurtful comments clearly influenced many of my subsequent actions and behaviors, and took away a few layers of authenticity, confidence, and security that I am still trying to rebuild. Looking back, it is hard to even recognize myself at some points in my past. Take a look for yourself at my progression from extreme tomboy to typical teenage girl:
My femininity was achievedmostly by the attire that I chose and the way that I wore my hair. Growing my hair past a shaggy short-do in middle school was a huge change. I was used to rolling out of bed in the morning and jumping into my day without a single thought about how I looked. I also had no practice doing anything with hair; a skill that many young girls pick up early on. I had to learn how to brush, dry, tie, and generally manage more hair than I’d ever had in my life. In middle school, I usually resorted to wearing a tight, slick ponytail. This was the lowest-maintenance hairstyle I could find without chopping my hair off again, but it was also not as masculine as a buzz. My ponytail, however, still became one of the many points of scrutiny from my peers. Goodbye ponytail, hello high-maintenance.
I then figured out that changing my attire along with my hair could further alleviate the comments that I ignored masterfully as they happened yet fixated on the moment I was alone. Why did that boy call me a “manly lesbian?” Why did my shoulders look like “bread with twine wrapped around them” today, and why was it so funny? I learned to welcome dresses, skirts, loose, feminine shirts, girl-ier shoes, etc. into my wardrobe. The transition from carefree tomboy to anxious, reluctant, pubescent high-schooler can be summed up in one word: ungraceful. I was moving into new territory; territory that I was ill equipped to handle. My first attempts at feminine hairstyles and attire were extremely embarrassing, and luckily escaped photographic evidence. After an unfortunately long period of trial and error, I was finally able to find a way to pass through the world without feeling “othered,” which for me required becoming feminine beyond the point of recognition.
To make matters worse, I was extremely uncomfortable with the ways that my body continued to change. As a child, I loved that my body was barely different from any of the boys that I roughed around with. Although I had learned how male genitalia was different than mine in an unfortunate “you show me yours I’ll show you mine” incident in my church pre-school, I barely had to confront the fact that I was inherently female. Once puberty hit and my body began to change, I could no longer ignore or escape my given gender. This embarrassment manifested itself in a few unfortunate, extremely private ways. The first was that I did not tell anyone I had my period for almost an entire year. I survived the first few experiences by scrounging for materials, consecrating the free pads they gave us in sex-ed class, and utilizing toilet paper in creative ways. I kept my horrifying “womanhood” secret by throwing away or sink-washing my underwear. This worked until my periods became a little heavier. I almost decided to tell my mom one day when on the bus to school in the morning I was sure I had leaked onto my pants. Luckily for me, I hadn’t, so I decided I could hold off on having the dreaded conversation. My breaking point finally came at Christmastime when I was 12. I had no pads, and day-long plans to go golfing with my dad and uncles. I knew I would be out of luck when it came to managing my period. I told my mom by asking her to come into the bathroom with me and literally showing her my soiled underwear. I hated her excitement, but I don’t fault her for it one bit. She had no way of knowing the extent of my embarrassment.
Managing my period, unfortunately, was neither the hardest, nor the most secretive part of my puberty. The hardest part came between the moment I began to develop breasts and when I wore my first bra. Although at first I was so curious about what was happening with my body that it bordered on excitement, I grew horrified when my breasts became noticeable. I was so embarrassed by my body that I resorted to self-harm. I had no idea that what I was doing was actually harmful; I just wanted my breasts to stop growing because they felt all wrong, and were increasingly difficult to hide. I fixated my discomfort on my nipples. I hated when my they would harden. I felt like they drew everyone’s attention to my awkward new chest bulges. Before my nightly shower I would dig my nails into my nipples hoping that they would stop hardening; hoping that my breasts would stop growing; hoping to communicate to my body that I wasn’t down with what it was doing. Once I began to wear sports bras, I was less worried about my chest being noticeable, but I never grew to be entirely comfortable with it. It was/is neither feminine nor unnoticeable. I luckily escaped without any serious lasting damage to my body, but I am left with a deep sadness for my younger, extremely confused self.
My second adolescence came along with my first relationship with a female. This partnership came in a whirlwind shortly after the beginning of my junior year of college, the end of my high school relationship, and the end of my parents’ marriage. I quickly went from being a “straight” person with married parents and a high school sweetheart to a not-so-straight child of divorced parents with a fragile heart and a complicated, secretive first same-sex relationship. Coming into this relationship in college was both beautiful and horrifying. I thought that I had already established my identity, and this relationship threatened to crack the protective shroud I had spent so long building. I viewed college as a fresh start: a way to use everything I had learned about safely moving through the world with a brand new group of people. Figuring out new labels, and embracing my sexuality as an authentic part of my identity was unsettling, even though I was entirely unsurprised by my interest in women.
One of the difficult aspects of my budding queer identity was my lack of experience exploring it. Although I had been attracted to women before, I never put much conscious thought into it; I never thought to myself “wait, does this mean I’m gay?” I certainly never acted on my feelings. As a young girl, I was cursed with an attraction to adult women - women that I couldn’t have possibly explored my sexuality with. The unattainability of my crushes allowed me to essentially ignore my feelings. I never even thought about being in a relationship with a girl. Plus, trying to fend off bullying for my appearance would have been far worse if I threw a controversial sexuality into the mix. My attractions were not confined to one gender, and crushing on boys was easier because it wasn’t taboo; I could talk to my peers openly about it. Eventually, one of my boy crushes resulted in a long-term relationship. From young girl with nonviable crushes to teenager in a serious relationship, I was not in a place to truly explore my interest in women until I was 20.
I was extremely excited when I finally began delving into my sexuality, but I felt like I wasn’t allowed to explore without having to prove, define or justify it. It seemed like all of the people that identified as gay, queer, bisexual, pansexual, etc. were aware of their identity very early on in their lives, even if they were not open about it. I was worried that I hadn’t “always known” at some level that I was queer. Writing about and living my truths now is only possible after years of critical questioning, mindfulness and reflection. There was quite a long period of time when I was confused, naive and alone. I was uncomfortable that I hadn’t consummated that aspect of myself until (what felt like) very late in my life. It seemed like I had missed an opportunity to get all of the discomfort out of the way at once. Why hadn’t I explored my sexuality earlier in my life when I dealt with the physical and mental changes that accompanied puberty? Was it a result of the heteronormative culture I grew up in? Was it a result of minimal representation of queer people in pop culture? Was it a result of the culture of my family, friends, or schools? Was it a result of my extremely tight schedule as a competitive athlete? Was it a result of being shamed about who I was, sexuality aside, to the point of serious repression? Was it a result of general anxiety? Whatever the reason, I was once again uncomfortable, ashamed and terrified about the unknown aspects of myself.
The most difficult part about exploring my sexual identity was saying it out loud. It was terrifying yet liberating to ascribe language to my new self. As freeing as it felt to talk about my sexuality with a select few people, it was a long journey to find the language that felt right. I preferred saying “I have a girlfriend,” or “I’m dating a girl” to saying “I’m gay” or “I’m bisexual” or putting any kind of label on myself. I felt like whatever I picked would negate other, equally true aspects of my identity. If I chose to call myself gay, would it unfairly represent my important yet heteronormative high school relationship? Once I discovered the word queer, the beautifully broad term I recently began identifying with, I realized how restrictive language can be. It felt as though language forced me into a box that required me to bend at all the wrong angles. My issues with language and labels was somehow appropriate, however, because it represented my strange dichotomy: I was privately excited about exploring my new sexuality, yet the thought of being publicly out and proud riddled me with anxiety. I was allowing myself to live my truths, but I didn’t know how to communicate with anyone else about it without constraining myself through the language I used.
In an odd coincidence with my first adolescence, I was once again hairless. I had shaved my head for a non-profit organization at the end of my high school relationship without even a thought about my sexual identity. The accidental alignment of my return to short hair and my budding sexuality made my hairstyle feel like a totem to my newfound gayness. I was accidentally broadcasting my otherness to the world, and that terrified me. I remembered what it felt like to be different from the crowd. I remembered the way people reacted to me. I remembered being made to feel like a gross, weird, unlovable person. I also, luckily, was able to cast my fears aside and explore without unfairly judging myself. Perhaps I had moved past the suffocating anxiety of my pubescent years. I was better equipped this time around to deal with the anxiety, shame and fear of the unknown in a healthier way. My mindfulness resulted in a more confident, self-assured version of myself.
With the passage of time and accumulation of experiences, I learned to accept and love my shifted identity, expanded sexuality and new labels. A large part of my self acceptance grew as a result of an incredibly supportive group of friends and family. My coming out is barely even significant because of how accepting my loved ones are. Most of my fears, I learned, were self-imposed representations of my anxiety, and did not manifest in my actual experience. I have also learned that I am one of the lucky ones. I can be, and am, open about my sexual identity. I did not come into my sexuality late or illegitimately at all, I just took my own path. I wish I could go back and tell my younger self that I am loved and accepted for who I am, and that it all turned out ok. At least I know it now.
On to my current adolescence: gender. I moved back to New York City about a year and a half ago after being away for six years. I am blessed that my immediate family and many of my closest friends reside in the same city. I feel more secure and loved than ever before in my life, which allows me to explore my gender identity without fear of persecution. I have also reconnected with important people from my past, and welcomed new friends who have helped me on my current journey. I am genderqueer. I knew it the moment I first heard the word. I was immediately drawn to this beautifully inclusive term. I could move around the gender spectrum without betraying any of my former, equally valid identities. I had already grown to love the word queer to describe my sexuality, and was so excited that this word could also allow me to openly explore and communicate about my gender.
Seeing and meeting people who identify separately from binary genders flipped a switch inside of me. I immediately thought back to my younger self. If I had known of other people like me back then, would I have been brave enough to explore my true gender? Again, it was difficult to say aloud. The first time I self-referentially used the word genderqueer, I was extremely drunk. This was not a healthy way for me to come out with my gender identity for the first time, but I needed help being brave. I wish there was a way to go through periods of adolescence and self-exploration without fear or shame, maybe it isn’t possible, but this time around I at least know that it will get better.
Although I am blessed with a rare support system, there are still aspects of my gender identity that are anxiety producing. Clothing is one such example. I have been slowly going through a wardrobe overhaul. The last time I wore a dress was New Year’s Eve 2014. After that night, I packed all of my dresses and skirts into a duffel bag. I could have taken them out at any point and worn one if I wanted to, I needed to have the option, but they went untouched for an entire year. By the time I gave the bag to my younger sisters, I was not only unafraid; I was free! I no longer needed the literal and symbolic costumes I had been using to move through the world. I was coming into the truest form of my self; the form that little me knew so well before being squashed by peers, biology, society, culture, etc. I replaced my dresses with button downs and bowties; crew necks and oxford shoes. I felt handsome, beautiful, dapper, amazing! Finding the clothing that fits, however, is still a struggle.
I currently have no desire to change my body with surgery or hormones, but the clothing I want to wear is usually meant for people that were born male. To clarify, I do not identify as transgender; I don’t identify as or wish to become a man. I simply want clothing that identifies me as somewhere in the middle of the gender spectrum. I want my clothing to represent my gender identity, and since I have a female body, the clothing that lands me in the most comfortable neutral zone is masculine. My current struggle is finding warm-weather appropriate attire and bathing suits. It is easy to dress in ways that don’t betray my gender identity in the winter; I can essentially cover my entire body. The more naked I have to/want to be, the more I feel constrained by my physicality.
I am also struggling with dating and sex. What does my gender identity mean for the people that I date? I feel like my pool of potential partners is smaller, which is fine, but I am anxious to continue my journey of growth and self acceptance through dating. Am I allowed to date gay women, or would being with me betray their gay identity? What words would a future partner use to describe me? Girlfriend isn’t quite right, and I don’t love the word partner. Can I just be their person? Language is still evolving, and will forever be constraining and difficult. As beautifully inclusive and broad as language can be, it will never be as inclusive, colorful and unique as human beings are. Language (or maybe I should say English since that’s the only language I know) will always fall short of fully describing humanness. The easiest way for me to answer these questions is to find people who understand my messy identity and are willing to jump into this beautiful mud pit with me.
Pronouns have become my current language struggle. Hearing myself referred to as “she,” “her,” or “Ms.,” grates on me, but I am nervous to ask people to use different pronouns. I’d love to be referred to by my name, or “E/e,” but I know that this adjustment will require asking people to change extremely ingrained habits. Furthermore, I have been able to blossom and explore my gender in my small little liberal friend bubble, but changing my pronouns will draw attention to my identity in other spaces where I feel less safe. I wish hearing someone referred to in non-gendered ways would be as normal as hearing binary pronouns. I know that we are in the middle of a huge cultural shift, and that hearing “they, them, their” or other gender neutral pronouns may be more commonplace in the future, but we still have a long way to go for these communities, for people like me, to be widely accepted in American society. While I don’t believe that the representations of transgender and gender non-conforming people in the spotlight are representative of the community at large, the current “trans moment” happening in American culture is important for the visibility and future acceptance of our community.
So where do I go from here? I have learned how to be accepting of myself. I am blessed to be surrounded by supportive people. I am fortunate to have access to information about people like me. I know I am not alone. I am lucky that I escaped all of the bullying, shame, fear, anxiety, and confusion of my past relatively unscathed. There are people like me in the world who are not so lucky. There are people like me who are still living in the closet for any number of reasons. There are people like me who live in fear for their safety on a daily basis. There are people like me who can’t access healthcare because of who they are. There are people like me without a place to call home. There are people like me who do not have the resources to look how they feel. There are people like me who feel different and don’t have the language, culture or ability to figure out why. There were people like me who are no longer with us, victims of hate, ignorance and violence.
I am being called to the fight for gender and LGBTQ+ equality because I survived long enough to know who I am. Because I can stand strong and proud and let other queer people know that they are loved. Because there are entire communities of people who wish to welcome you, whoever you are, with open arms. Because I am blessed to live in a society that, while we have a long way to go, is one of the most inclusive, accepting societies in the world.
I join the fight here, now, with my words. Here is my story. I wish to share it to rid me of my shame, and to bring visibility the the invisible struggles. I hope it makes you feel less alone.
Thank you. I love you.