Over the years, I've seen numerous articles titled "How I Learned To Love My [insert body part, identity, or experience of choice]." I have always struggled with the tense of that phrase. The past tense — "learned" — implies that someone definitively figured out how to love this elusive quality or thing and moved on. My experience has indicated that this journey is not quite that simple.
As a queer, trans femme, non-binary, gender-nonconforming person, I often think about this process in relation to my gender. I haven't learned to love my gender: I’m continually learning to love my gender.
I often wonder when I first learned not to love it. Surely failing to love part of oneself isn’t an innate human experience, right? I think the short answer is that society taught me I couldn't love my gender. It wasn't until recently that I began to more fully understand my gender.
I, and many others, have been born into a world that misgenders us before we are even born. When the doctor saw my physical anatomy in an ultrasound image he told my mom she was having a boy. That was the first time I was misgendered.
Looking back, I’ve always been trans, but I only began to understand this a few months ago. I just never had the frameworks or vocabulary to articulate this feeling. I thought I was a gay boy for about five years; before that I think I was simply a child. I only ever called myself a "boy" because it was the word given to me, and because the word "man" made me feel incredibly uncomfortable. I associated "man" with violence and apathy, and have never understood or related to either quality in the slightest.
I called myself "gay" for years — and was one of the only out people in my high school. At first, I only told a few people that I thought I was gay, but one friend whom I had trusted told a few others. The news quickly spread and things became pretty difficult rather quickly. About a week after the news broke, I remember I walked into the restroom and all the boys got closer to the urinals, as if they were afraid I would look at them while they peed. A few left right away and I heard someone say “faggot” under their breath. I avoided the bathroom as much as I could for the rest of that year — I held it until I got home and could pee in peace.
Although things got better the next year — I was part of numerous clubs, helped plan school dances, and held several leadership positions — I still felt unpopular and continued to doubt myself. I began to dress more ostentatiously and behave in more stereotypically “gay” ways to garner more attention. I transgressed binary expectations of what people thought femininity or masculinity should look like, and many classmates felt they needed to police me, to shove me back into a binary box and remind me that society didn't approve.
When my classmates policed me this way, when they made jokes about me, I joined them. I thought that if I could laugh along with them, I could more easily get through it all. Being — and actively making myself — the butt of everyone’s big gay joke was the only way I could figure out how to survive my small Midwestern town and tiny high school. Self-deprecation became a widely accepted, yet incredibly dangerous, form of social survival.
But in making these jokes, I inflicted a significant amount of pain and damage onto myself. I struggled with an eating disorder, self-harm, and a couple of failed suicide attempts. I didn’t have the words to describe what I was feeling and didn’t feel like my problems were important enough to convey to others — I didn't feel that I was important enough to be preserved. I projected a happy, confident, and successful facade, but I was suffocating.
I assumed my peers teased and mocked me because I was acting and dressing "gay," but later realized they were really laughing at my expressions of femininity. I didn't yet realize that I wasn't a boy and that it felt violently wrong to be even remotely associated with the hyper-masculine jocks around me. I didn't yet realize that my existence didn't have to be dictated by external forces.
Eventually, however, I found power in femininity. This is why so many people are afraid of femininity — because it is a form of power. It is one I have used as a tool for survival. Since coming to these realizations, I have begun to understand my relation to the world in a more complex, more truthful way. I didn't choose my gender identity — it's part of my existence. My gender isn't fixed but changes as I do. It's a vehicle for how I relate to the world and is informed by past experiences, present realities, and my imagining of the future.
I worked, and am still working, at loving myself within this framework. Doing this work, especially over the past few months, has taught me that there is no perfect "it gets better" story. Life isn't constructed in a neatly delineated story arc. There is no definitive climactic tension or eventual resolution.
Therefore, I’ve never learned to love myself in a finite way. I have learned, however, that loving something, someone, or even oneself is a process that requires time, work, and patience. It includes learning to appreciate, to care, to relate, to uplift. For me, the process of learning to love my gender has been one of the most turbulent, sloppy, frightening, beautiful experiences I continue to have every single day.
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