This post is part of the Weave of Tradition series. Please read the introductory post to that series to understand more about this post’s intent and context. This series deals with traditions, language, and symbols that mean very different things to different people.
I mean, I love the rainbow bracelets i managed to get, with “LOVE WINS” and that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong. But that’s my acceptable Pride jewelry, and some of it actually makes me vaguely uncomfortable to wear. But it doesn’t make anyone else uncomfortable.
The part that makes me uncomfortable is the double-woman symbol. Everyone knows it means lesbian, so it’s convenient. It’s in no way controversial, so it’s convenient.
But… it demands things of me I’m uncomfortable with. It reflects back at me a narrow definition of lesbian as a person with a female gender identity attracted exclusively to other people with female gender identities. A definition that has no room for me in it. But that has become popular lately and crowded out older, more inclusive, broader definitions of lesbian, ones that still have a place for a person like me, with no innate gender identity and complicated attractions.
I know the double-woman symbol doesn’t mean that to everyone who uses it. But it feels like that meaning to me, so it feels uncomfortable to wear it. Even as I do wear it.
Meanwhile I prefer to wear a symbol that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. And they have good reason to be uncomfortable. I’m not taking that away from them. As I’ve said — the same word or symbol can make different people feel very different. Even different people with relatively similar labels, life experiences, etc. These things can be deeply personal.
I happen to love the labrys. These are the earrings I wore all Pride and continue to wear now:
I shouldn’t have to say this, but for clarity: I am not a lesbian feminist, a radical feminist, etc. I believe trans women who are lesbians are lesbians, no questions asked. I don’t wear the labrys as a statement about anyone else.
The reason I love the labrys is complicated. But the part that might surprise people:
A labrys has never demanded anything from me when it comes to gender identity.
Yeah, I actually prefer the labrys because it does not impose anything on me with respect to my relationship with gender. Nothing. Never has. People who use the labrys have, sometimes. But the labrys itself hasn’t. And contrary to popular belief, the labrys has been popular in many circles that have nothing to do with the ideologies most people associate with it.
So I wore labrys earrings all of Pride Month but I never talked about them. I was afraid to. I was afraid people would misunderstand my intent, misunderstand my relationship to the symbol, misunderstand the whole thing.
Especially when you combine it with statements like “I’m a genderless lesbian.” But my genderlessness is not ideological or political, it’s a hard-won truth about myself. it just means I lack any innate sense of myself as having a gender, and always have. Nothing more, nothing less.
Lesbian is complicated and I’ll probably get into that in a different post in this series.
But anyway, things like this are what this post series was made for: Words and symbols that mean very different things to different people. And that being okay.
This hasn’t happened any time recently that I recall. But it’s become pretty common to describe people in image descriptions as male-presenting or female-presenting if you don’t know their gender.
Please don’t do that to me in any context. I don’t have a gender identity and I don’t have a gender presentation. These are terms developed to describe people with a very different experience of gender than I have. They work for most people. They don’t work for people like me. I get that I’m in a tiny tiny minority. But just please don’t do it. No matter what gender you pick (including nonbinary ones), you’re basically tying elements of my appearance to a gender, when that’s not how my appearance works.
And to be described as male-presenting or female-presenting basically feels like being plunged suddenly into ice water with no warning. Combined with the same feelings I get when misgendered. (Which, for me, being gendered is being misgendered, so it happens a lot. I grasp that being gendered — appropriately — is very important to 99% of the population, so I don’t know a social solution to this, but just putting it out there that this is how it works for me. Not speaking for anyone else genderless. Also I’m not talking about pronouns, I actually don’t mind people getting those “wrong”, I’m talking about being forced into gender in social situations.)
When I say I don’t have a gender presentation, I don’t mean that people don’t judge gender from my appearance. I mean that how I intentionally decorate my body is not tied to gender. I am not female-presenting when I wear a skirt and male-presenting when I wear my dad’s clothes. I’m just me wearing clothes. Wearing what beard I can manage to grow is not about masculinity and wearing my hair long is not about femininity. Wearing my dad’s clothes and copper nail polish is not about being nonbinary or about trying to confuse anyone. Nor is wearing my dad’s clothes including suspenders but with a skirt. These things just happen, they’re not about gender. Presenting implies at least some amount of intent.
So thanks in advance for just not going there with me. Not trying to fit my appearance into a gender box, not splashing me with ice water, not making me feel more like an outsider to every damn thing than I already feel. Nothing like this has happened recently, I just wanted to explain.
Oh also when I say I lack a gender identity, I mean I lack any internal sense that ties me to a gender. This is not a choice, a political view, or a philosophical position. I have no problem with most of the world having a gender. I just don’t. I have no idea why.
If you hear me describing myself in seemingly gendered terms, I’m likely using them in a sociological sense, or because gender-neutral terms can sound clinical and impersonal. (“Sibling” vs. “brother” or “sister”, just not the same.) Or because the world is a complex place, and so is language, and one word can have many meanings, and I have enough word-finding problems as it is to be precise about language all the time, and so many other things.
But I don’t think you’ll ever catch me describing myself as having a gender presentation. For reasons. Thanks for not doing the same.
Also don’t assume all genderless people feel as I do or that all people with genders are comfortable with the idea of gender presentation being applied to them. This request is entirely personal. People are complicated. Categories don’t always dictate preferences in this regard.
Growing up, I had a weird relationship with my hair. I wanted to wear it long, and never cut it unless forced. But I was taught that the price of this was having my hair brushed in a manner that came close to hair torture.
Brushes stuck in my hair no matter how much detangling spray you stuck in. My mother did not know how to cope with hair like mine, and did not seem to use any techniques to soften what she was doing to my hair. She’d just run a brush through it no matter what happened.
Every time the brush went through she hit a huge tangle. Brushes got stuck. Brushes sometimes broke. She was determined to brush and blow-dry my hair into submission. The best she could get was a straight or wavy outer surface with a bushy rat’s nest underneath. The rat’s nest seemed to form of its own accord and spread throughout my hair with lightning speed. Then it would be back to the brush torture.
I screamed. I cried. I got in trouble.
“Be quiet, someone will think I’m hurting you!”
“But you are!”
Obviously, that didn’t go over well.
Very occasionally she’d take me to a hairdresser. I never screamed at the hairdresser. My mom found this puzzling. It was because the hairdresser was paid to remember the hair was attached to the head of a human child, and acted accordingly to prevent pain. But the hairdresser really didn’t know what else to do other than blow-dry it within an inch of its life either.
When you’re in the system, you actually get judged on the state of your hair.
I have actual files that solemnly describe my hair as ‘unkempt’ as if that’s an actual symptom of anything. I’ve talked to others who have the same thing in their files. It can even hurt your chances of being taken seriously in an emergency room for a physical problem.
So my hair has actually been described as pathological in a psychiatric context. My hair.
Anyway, I went a long time shaving my head or keeping my hair very short.
But at some point I wanted to grow it out and was looking at ways to do so.
I found out the secret nobody knew or told me: Most of my hair is curly. When properly moisturized and taken care of, it forms ringlets.
Brushing curly hair breaks up the natural curl pattern and makes it bushy and tangled.
I used to think my hair needed so much care there was no way I could take care of it.
It turns out caring for my hair is very simple.
I fill a spray bottle with water and pour in a small amount of oils that penetrate or lock in moisture to your hair.
I shake it up and spray it on my hair a few times a day.
I finger comb.
Then depending on humidity and other factors I get waves and ringlets.
And virtually no tangles.
It’s that simple.
Hell, in that picture I’d, in a pinch, used a hand lotion with shea butter, olive oil, and coconut oil while my hair was still wet. It turned out perfect.
For my mom’s part, she’s caught on about the curliness by now and sends me amazing hair oils from time to time.
This, by the way, is what can happen without taking care of it:
Knowing how my hair is supposed to work is part of knowing how my body is supposed to work. Knowing how my body is supposed to work is something that’s taken away from a lot of disabled people, including me. I have a congenital neuromuscular condition and nobody’s ever taught me how to live within my own body with this. I learned to plow through until I drop. Well nobody’s ever taught me how to take care of my hair, either. Or even that there was a way to take care of my hair that didn’t involve hair torture.
As a person with a developmental disability, gender expectations are complicated. In many ways I’m expected to be genderless. Not genderless as in the word I use to refer to my lack of any gender identity. No, it’s different than that. When people say people with developmental disabilites are asexual, they don’t mean the sexual orientation. When they think we’re genderless, they’re not talking about a lack of gender identity. What they’re thinking about in each case is that we’re missing something they consider fundamental to being a full human being. To them, I’m an it, a thing, not a person.
So the expectations I get from my appearance and manner already, get amplified by the fact that I have a developmental disability, and can become dangerous very quickly, including in medical settings.
The psychiatric system outright punishes gender non-conformity in any form. For anyone presumed to be a girl or woman, that means unkempt hair is a sign of psychopathology. But they offer no more tips on how to have kempt hair than my family or haidressers had growing up.
My unibrow has been carefully measured and noted by geneticists. My facial hair is occasion for frequent hormonal testing. I’ve had doctors pull down my pants with no warning in front of med students in order to remark on the Tanner stage of my pubic hair without saying a word to me.
Everything about every hair on my body has been made out to be a medical or moral problem at some point. Many things about the hair on my body have been made into a gendered thing, sometimes combined with ableism, sometimes not. Which for a genderless person is an extra level of aggravating.
Also, because I’m disabled — and fat — and other things — I’m not supposed to give a shit about how I look, because after all I’m just a thing. And a gross thing at that. Gross things aren’t supposed to care about our appearance at all. I’m reminded of Dave Hingsburger’s post about being a disabled fat guy taking his shirt off in public. Not quite the same, but related. We’re not supposed to care about our bodies, let alone be okay with our bodies as we are. It’s just not supposed to happen.
The way my hair grows on my body matters to me.
I am very attached to my unibrow.
I am very attached to my facial hair.
And I am very attached to taking care of the hair that grows on top of my head, and seeing it as it’s meant to be all along.
And as trivial as those things sound. With the amount of crap I’ve gotten all my life for all of those things. Every single one of them means a great deal more to me than may make sense to most people. Every single one of them is important. Every single one of them I’ve had to fight for, sometimes literally, physically. Every single one of them has been picked apart in terms of disability at some point in my life. Every single one of them has been affected by how I’m perceived as a disabled person. Keep in mind doctors once told my parents it didn’t matter (because I was disabled) whether I had teeth, so hair isn’t even on the agenda.
So yeah, I care about my hair.
But not for the reasons you’d think.
My friend can feel her feet, and really that’s all that matters.
She spent forty years pretending to be a man. She has finally come out as a woman and begun transitioning to living in the world as a woman. Nearly everyone who knows her has reacted similarly — “Oh that makes sense, why didn’t I ever think of that?”
But then there’s the other reactions.
My friend can feel her feet for the first time in her life. She can feel her body. She was so disconnected from her body before that she didn’t notice a surgical scar she’d had on her arm in plain sight her entire life. And now she can feel her feet.
Whenever I automatically feel my feet, it means I’m connected with the world, it means something is going right, I am doing the right thing. I feel my feet every time I play my grandfather’s violin.
So when she told me she could feel her feet, I knew she was doing the right thing.
Her eyes have changed too. I didn’t used to really know she had eyes. Now they are impossible to miss, with tons of emotional depth, range, and complexity. Strangers compliment her on them.
But some people react to her in a way that makes me uncomfortable.
She’s just trying to live her life, feel her feet, do what she needs to do.
Other people seem bound and determined to explain their theories of gender to her.
They seem to think that her announcing she exists is an invitation to a debate. (It’s not. And neither is this post. If you want to debate gender, do it somewhere else, I will not approve your comments, I will not have a post about respecting my friend turn into a place to disrespect her.)
This is incredibly disrespectful. She is a human being trying to live her life. She is trying to live a life where she can feel her feet, have beautiful expressive eyes nobody’s seen before, be happy in her own skin.
Her existence is not an invitation to a debate.
Her existence isn’t the start of a philosophical discussion about whatever you happen to think gender is and how you think it works.
Her existence is not an invitation to explain to her exactly why you think she is how she is. And what you think is really going on with her.
It doesn’t frigging matter if you understand what’s going on with her or not.
It really doesn’t.
I don’t understand gender. I understand less about gender than the average human being does. Because I’m genderless. Gender identity is a foreign concept to me. I don’t appear to have one, whatever it is.
But not all the world works like I do. And not all the world should have to. And I don’t feel insecure enough about my ignorance that I have to cook up an explanation for everything I don’t understand, and throw it in the face of everybody who experiences something I don’t.
Sometimes you’re not gonna understand.
Sometimes you’re not gonna know why something is so important to someone.
But none of that matters, actually.
I don’t have to understand gender identity to understand that it’s incredibly important to the vast majority of people on the planet. Including my friend.
I don’t have to know why it’s important.
All I have to know is that when my friend lives her life as a woman, she can feel her feet. She can feel as if her body is finally a part of her. She can feel happy and fulfilled and just go about her life without thinking about trying to look male all the time. She can show the world how deep and expressive her eyes are when she’s not living in hiding and fear.
Those are the only things that are important.
My opinions on gender — if I even have them — mean fuck-all in the scheme of her life.
The ways my experience of gender differ from hers — not important in terms of how she is leading her life.
I don’t need to insert myself right into the big middle of everything related to her. In fact the best thing I can possibly do is get out of the way and let her be herself.
If she wants to talk about gender she’ll bring it up.
Her existence is not an invitation to that conversation any more than my existence with a feeding tube is an invitation to a debate on assisted suicide.
Just have some respect.
For my part, I found out that she’s never worn shawls before. She wanted to try colorful clothing. She wanted the option to wear things that were feminine. She’s never had these options before. (And no, not everything she does and wears is stereotypically feminine. She just hasn’t had the chance before.) She loves to wrap herself in blankets, so I told her a shawl is like a socially acceptable usually-triangular blanket you can take anywhere.
So I’m crocheting her shawls.
Every stitch says “I already know you are a woman.” Just in case she needs a reminder with all the other messages she’s getting.
I’ve made her two so far. One is purple mohair lace. The other is a sturdy wool in many bright colors that seem to suit her. Because that’s the other thing. Her soul used to be grey and in hiding and kind of reserved. Ever since she came out, her soul has been all the bright colors you could imagine. I’m not the only one who has remarked on these changes.
You don’t need to make someone shawls to show your respect for her womanhood though.
And you don’t need to understand anything about gender.
All you have to understand is that living as a woman she can feel her feet and everything else.
It really comes down to that.
Not you. Not your opinions. Not your ideas about gender politics. Get out of her way. This is about her, not you.
Living her life.
Which is not an invitation to a debate.
She is who she is. Grant her the courtesy of treating her like it.
That’s all you need to do, all you need to know.
My friend can feel her feet.
My friend can express great depth of emotion in her eyes for the first time in her life.
Her soul shines in all these beautiful colors that were hidden before.
My. Friend. Can. Feel. Her. Feet.
End of story. Nothing else matters.