I don't come out as non-binary / a_gender / genderqueer person (for me, all doing the same disruptive thing) for the majority of my life. I feel icky that any move towards neutrality is only possible because of my privilege: educated, white, cis (cis-passing?); so I don’t.
Last month, I was awarded a 5-year fellowship for PhD study. This includes a $26K annual award connected to part-time academic labor as research assistant, instructor, fellow. To me, this marks my induction into middle-class opulence. Now I have institutional backing. I have clout and resources. I teach writing at selective NYC colleges. I have nice clothes (well, nice and on sale) and can buy lunch out with colleagues. I recently paid a $12 submission fee for a poetry manuscript contest.
I still feel like a waitress/waiter (server?) making $7.50/hour plus whatever yuppies from Long Island feel like tipping while I pour sweat into my crop top and mini-skirt, by far the fattest member of the staff, incapacitated by chronic pain, by panic I suppress with tequila and cash.
I wear lipstick and feel like a fraud. Masc-of-center queers leave me huge tips and I think I must be doing something right.
It is one year later and I have two dozen poem publications, a chapbook, another on deck, book reviews. I am a writer, I guess. Haven’t I always been a writer? Now it shows up on my CV, in conversation; my writing center job is buying copies of my books.
I have a conversation on Twitter about how weird I feel that my first chapbook was published by an explicitly queer and trans press, how I am queer but I am not trans, probably, but I’m probably not cis. I feel icky submitting to journals for trans writers (am I one of these? I don't use this term for myself because I do not need protection, I am employed, I am left alone on the train, I use pronouns that everyone recognizes as real, I can use the restroom without threats, without harassment or violence). My girlfriend even asks: are you a girl today or what? and I don’t know, I gulp, giggle, who knows. I use the women’s room because of course I do.
If I am not one thing, am I automatically another? Often, yes.
Not masc = femme.
Not abled = disabled.
Not trans = cis (???).
At the same time, my messy gender is already granted space by queer culture: white genderqueer AFAB people are the boutique icons of gender nonconformity, non-binary-ism. I am allowed to wear blazers, rock almost-shaved hair, clomp around in boots, and I’m seen as professional because all writing adjuncts are white AFAB people in blazers and boots.
Recently, an ex-friend wrote a piece about stopping testosterone, about how their version of transness had shifted to a kind of transition that isn’t medical. Immediately, their Facebook wall filled with applause: good for you, disrupting the gender binary, said their cis and trans masc friends. A cis man who misgenders trans women “to make a point”: thank you for writing about the authentic trans experience.
Implication: medical transition is invalid.
Implication: white trans masculinity is the authentic form of transness.
Implication: trans women are doing gender wrong.
I want to smash his face in.
Cute AFAB people on my Instagram feed rock “Gender is Over” and “The Future is Female” shirts. (It isn’t, and it isn’t.) I resist the compulsion to leave a derisive comment and instead I unfollow.
Coming out as a gender that's privileged, as my perceived gender is already privileged, is messy: white AFAB gender fluidity is still cis-passing, thin, abled, wealthy, “androgynous.” But finding solace in reclaiming my own hard-won queer femmeness is a reminder that femmeness is not available to others as it is to me. Neutrality isn't neutral if it skews masculine. I try to feel less of a fraud in my lipstick; I remember I'm able to disrupt because of these privileges, so I do.
But when my lilac nails match my glittery lavender cane, it is not an accident.
Jesse Rice-Evans is a queer Southern poet and rhetorician based in NYC. Read her work in the chapbooks Soft Switch (Damaged Goods Press) and The Rotting Kind (Ghost City Press), and online at Heavy Feather Review, Public Pool, and Quaint, among others.