On Gender Part 3: Plucking the Web: Witches, Queers & Finding Community
Gender is a topic I've tangled with for years. I definitely don't have all the answers. I'm still exploring what it means to be a body that participates in human cultures and society. But these are my thoughts and feelings so far.
This is Part 3 in a three-part series On Gender. The other articles are:
Part 1: Dear Gender Binary, Why Are You Obsessed With My Genitals?
Part 2: Why I Am Not A Woman or a Feminist
(You can download a pdf of all three parts here: On Gender: The Complete Essay.)
I believe we can connect deeply with people who are different than us. I believe we can feel respected, seen, and heard by all types of people who do not look, think, or feel like we do.
And sometimes I also would really love to meet more people who look, think, and feel like me. Community - to be mirrored and witnessed by others - feels really good. It can curb feelings of loneliness, depression, and isolation. It can give meaning and deeper context to our lives.
So I have often turned to the queer community - to folks who identify as transgender, non-binary, or genderqueer - in order to find others that might have a similar worldview to my own.
But more often than not, I still feel like I don't quite fit in.
When I was in college, I was a board member in the trans awareness organization on campus. It was the first time I met people in person who had queer ideas about identity and in many ways it felt like I’d found a community.
It was 2003 and we were trying to change the language of the student constitution to be more inclusive of nonconforming gender identities (specifically, changing the she/her/hers language to the pronouns they/them/theirs).
We canvased, did presentations, and met with the school president. There was a school-wide assembly where students from all perspectives could speak. And then we held a school-wide vote.
Before the vote, I put up a few signs in my dorm saying that I identified as trans and that it meant a lot to me personally that this policy be changed to be more inclusive - that it was setting a precedent for the future of gender acceptance on campus.
It was the first time I’d publicly made such a statement about being gender nonconforming. But I knew I wasn’t trans "like my guy friends were trans."
I mean, I didn’t want to be a man any more than I wanted to be a woman. I didn’t really care what kind of pronouns people used for me. And I didn’t want to bind down my breasts or change my hormones (not that all trans guys want to do that - some don’t!). But I called myself trans because it felt like the closest thing I could find to describing myself at the time.
The pronoun change passed the vote and we all celebrated! I took down my signs, but not before someone anonymously had written something on one of them. I wish I could remember exactly what the words said, but it left me feeling like an imposter.
Their comment made me feel like I was not “trans enough” to have spoken out because I looked the way that I do.
Not Queer Enough
Ironically, because I look the way that I do, most other queer people who meet me assume that I’m a femme, or a queer woman, or an ally. None of which is true.
I think this is because most non-binary people tend to be really androgynous or overtly gender-bending in their style and appearance. And that’s not usually how I look.
So I tend to feel really nervous when talking to other genderqueer people. I have a difficult time articulating my feelings about gender because I'm afraid that they’ll think I’m not educated enough in "queer lingo," I'm not non-binary enough in my style, or I'm just not queer enough.
I’m suddenly 19 years old again, taking my posters down in my dorm, afraid that everyone is going to think I’m an imposter. Like I don't belong. Like I should just keep my mouth shut.
Now I acknowledge that it’s not the job of my trans or androgynous genderqueer friends to make me feel comfortable - they have enough of a systemic burden that they don’t need to coddle me!! - especially since I still experience so much perceived-gender privilege on a daily basis.
I acknowledge this to be true and yet I also feel really lonely in queer spaces. I have yet to meet any other non-binary people who look and identify like me. And that can leave me feeling really invisible and isolated.
But it’s the same in binary spaces, too. Most binary people just assume that I’m a straight, feminist woman, especially since I’m currently partnered with a self-identified man who conforms visually to binary gender norms.
Add to it that I now live in Greece, where the cultural and language barriers often feel insurmountable, and I’m left feeling partially (if not totally) invisible as a genderqueer person in most of my daily interactions.
So if I don’t really feel like I fit in genderqueer spaces, and I don’t really feel like I fit in the binary world either, then where do I belong?
I'm still trying to figure that one out...
Landscapes of Identity
I recently read an article by s.e. smith called "A Trip to Woman City" that described gender like a map. I really resonated with this. Especially as someone who is fascinated by the power of place, the idea of moving through gender identity like we move through landscapes really made sense to me.
And I suddenly realized that my own struggle with locating myself in both binary society and also in non-binary spaces is why I identify so much with witches and maenads, those who dwell on the outskirts of the town or who dance in the woods beyond the village firelight.
They are the shapeshifters, the edgewalkers, the boundary dancers, the liminal ones who are both inside and outside the circle of belonging. They cross the borders like liquid, rushing in to fill up the spaces where society has wedged a gap.
They are the queer ones. They communicate with landscapes as easily as with people, bridging the worlds of plant, animal, water, and stone. They make the Other somehow familiar, weaving a web of connection.
So instead of existing in a two-point, binary system - or on a linear spectrum - or even outside a clearly drawn circle - I think I simultaneously exist in/on/outside of a place that looks more like a web.
It is a matrix of identity - a latticework of fibers - each strand connecting all the different parts of me to the landscape and to Others that I meet.
And every day I write or dance or even breathe, I'm plucking the web - vibrating the strings - wondering if anyone else will feel the vibration - so we can both feel just a little less alone.