“Are you a boy or a girl?” I was so embarrassed by being singled-out for this question when I only wanted to play with other kids as equals, mostly with boys whose prescribed activities and colour scheme interested me more than did girls’. At the youngest ages I had no clue about the social construction of gender, the differences between sex and gender, or why anyone would ever think boys were superior to girls – I could beat or equal them at anything. I had no reason to want to be a boy when being a girl seemed to deprive me of nothing in my suburban, upper-middle class, white North American-born milieu. The only reason I even considered it was that I was being asked all the time by peers, and even adults, if I wanted to be a boy. Was that even an option? All I knew then was – I’m a girl, that’s it; stop bothering me!
By the time I could express an opinion, I would never wear a dress again and my hair stayed short, just like that of my friends. Thank goodness for the 1980s North American trend of androgyny that had so many of us white kids wearing bowl haircuts and jeans every day. At that time it was my choice of activities that brought the terrorizing question, “Are you a boy or a girl?” Other kids were not being asked that. I hated to be the only one who had to say it out loud. I didn’t like being called a Tomboy because I didn’t want to be a boy of any sort.
I loved to play soccer and there was only one team to play on. It was for boys – but because I already played with those same boys every day at recess at school I was one of the best players, so of course they had me play on the after-school local club travelling team with them, around three times a week. When I was 10, a girl’s team was started and I was told to go and play with a bunch of beginners whom I didn’t know. “Thanks, but no thanks, I’ll stay on this team I’ve loved playing on for years, with all my friends.” But I was forced to switch and I was crushed – because I was a much more experienced and skilled player. Being a girl was starting to suck.
My most intense and baffling battles over my gender expression happened with my mom when we were clothes-shopping. I couldn’t stand any of the frilly and mostly pink-coloured clothes we had to choose from in the ‘girls’ section of any given store. I started to sneak off to the forbidden side of the store across a magical aisle where I saw things I would like to wear. I’d bring them back to my mom to show her and she caught me every time because the buttons were on the “wrong” side or the size was written as a letter instead of a number. “Who decided to put this shirt that I like on the ‘boys’ side of the store instead of the ‘girls’ side?” I would beg of her. What all-powerful being makes it impossible for me to wear the clothes I like and to escape that sinister question, “Are you a boy or a girl?”
When I finally came out to myself at age 16 and made it to a free queer youth space, I couldn’t wait to be accepted among folks who didn’t play by society’s heterosexist rules of masculine and feminine as polar opposites. But when I arrived at my destination the first thing anyone asked me was if I was butch or femme. The crushing disappointment I felt that my lifelong exclusion from being feminine enough to qualify as a girl on sight was not going to end in my queer life boggled my mind. I figured that since my answer all my life was that I was a girl and I didn’t even want to be a boy, I had better make that clear in my new life with a feminine sexuality, too (all-female, right?). My mom felt like jumping for joy when I asked her to take me shopping for a whole new, femmed-out wardrobe. It was agonizing for me to agree to the clothes she picked out, but I had to do it if I was ever going to be a sexy, happy, feminine, lesbian.
This phase only lasted a year or so until in my first year at university, I had my first women’s studies class.
“It’s feminine because I’m female” became my mantra for decades. I think that I first used it in my defence when I was questioned about my gender by a queer friend because the clothes I wore so clearly came from the men’s side of a store, most probably The Gap at that time. It’s now called gender policing for a reason: It sounds like a police interrogation!
“Which side of the store did you get that from?”
“Why does it matter?”
“It was the men’s side wasn’t it?”
“Probably. So what?
“Then it’s a men’s shirt. It’s a masculine shirt!”
“It’s my shirt. Who decided which side of the store to sell it on?”
“I don’t know. Doesn’t matter. You’re wearing men’s clothes. It looks masculine.”
“It’s feminine because I’m female! Wow, look how powerful I am. I am woman, hear me roar!”
“Well, you’re a butch lesbian, so that makes it masculine. You want it to be masculine. You’re definitely not a femme lesbian”
“Wait – what? Who said I was butch? Because somebody put this shirt on the men’s side of the store, my sexuality is defined by masculinity? I’m still not believing that the fucking shirt is masculine, let alone being masculine myself! With or without clothes on, I’m feminine because I’m female.”
“It’s feminine because I’m female” came back to liberate me from social constructions of gender as I decided to accept my power to claim femininity for myself alongside my powerlessness to project it to others. If a woman in my life, especially a lover, got to know me well, she’d observe that there was nothing about me invested in patriarchy, let alone masculinity. I followed that path for many years until I didn’t need it anymore.
I’ve been asked all my life to explain to people if I’m a boy or a girl or if I want to be a boy. I still get asked, by children mostly. I still feel embarrassed but sometimes I can get them into a conversation about why they asked me. I never believed that someone else could exclude me from my femaleness, least of all in my woman-loving sexuality.
Photo credits: All photos – Di Sands