“The days that I feel most beautiful are the days that I am most afraid.”
Alok Vaid-Menon’s words wash over me, saturate the pores in my skin, and sit heavy like bricks in my chest every time I read them. I remember exactly where I was the first time I read Alok’s recent book, Beyond The Gender Binary; it was a hazy August afternoon in my small one-bedroom apartment in Philadelphia and like millions of others this year, I was feeling the weighty dissonance of yet another day in isolation during a global pandemic. For the first time in a long time (maybe ever?), actual, real-life words on a page were describing, with such pain and gentleness and vulnerability, feelings that have lived deep inside of my body for 31 years. I devoured all 64 pages in tears that afternoon, bouncing back-and-forth between the suffocating heaviness of three decades of rage and grief and the incredible relief that comes when a body breathes deeply for the first time.
I was 11 years old the first time I was asked whether I was a boy or girl. I was in 6th grade standing in the middle of the cafeteria when a classmate walked up to me in front of everyone, screamed “are you a boy or a girl?” and slapped me in the face. I honestly don’t remember what happened next other than a prickly hot sensation flushing my skin and beating loudly in my ears. The brain is a fascinatingly protective place. Come to think of it, I can only recall flashes from my three years in that place; being pushed down the stairs, spit in my face, attacked on the lacrosse field. My middle school experience marked a painful shift in my understanding (and awareness in general) of gender. It was no longer acceptable for me to be the “tomboy” that wore baggy t-shirts and preferred playing basketball with the boys over collecting every flavor imaginable of Lip Smackers. Seemingly overnight, my entire existence and way of understanding myself became something to be ashamed of — something to be corrected.
Alok says that “the thing about shame is that it eats at you until it fully consumes you. Then you cannot tell the difference between their shame and your own — between a body and an apology. It’s not just that you internalize the shame; rather, it becomes you. You no longer need the people at school telling you not to dress like that; you already do it to yourself… you edit yourself, and at some point, it becomes so normal that you can’t even tell you’re doing it.” I have experienced countless versions of that cafeteria moment in my adult life as a non-binary queer person — I’ve made myself small, edited and swallowed pieces of myself in the face of persistent attempts to push me back into the acceptable and palatable gender box from which I attempt to escape.
I also know that my whiteness has protected me from the disproportionate violence that my trans and GNC siblings of color face every day, most specifically Black trans women. 2020 has been a year of reckoning, of loss and grief, of gasping for breath and splitting open so loudly that to ignore this centuries-old violence now accessible on every screen is to further enact said violence. Being forced to and having the privilege of sitting at home for the last nine months has also forced me to sit with my gender in new ways. I find myself wrestling with and asking myself a few things:
Who am I if there’s no one to perform for? So much of my life has been shaped by the beautiful and violent experiences I’ve had with other people based on how I perform my gender. I’m certainly not the only one asking this question, and it has been incredibly comforting to know that I’m not alone. (Try here.here. andhere.)
What does it look like for me to learn to sit with myself, in my own body, and remember that I am enough? That it’s not so much a new learning, but a remembering — a coming home to myself. My dear friend Henaz asks, “What are the deep wounds and fissures in my spirit that I need to tend to? How has racism, anti-blackness, anti-indigeneity, transphobia, gender rigidity, classism, ableism and xenophobia framed my insides?” In their writing classes, Alok asks, “what parts of yourself did you have to destroy in order to survive this world?”
I cannot separate my whiteness from my non-binary-ness or my queerness; it is both the root and origin of the harm I’ve experienced and my greatest protector. I need to unlearn it; it is the only way for me (us) to be free of the violence that it causes (to me and by me).