Growing up genderqueer: My lifelong struggle with gender dysphoria


As a kid, I always knew I was that weird one.

The signs were early on: I hated any clothes that were frilly or form-fitting; I had to be bribed with giant stuffed animals for my mom to get me to wear lipstick in the family Santa photo. I quit ballet class because I couldn’t deal with wearing pink tights and a tutu. In kindergarden, the girls wouldn’t let me play with them because I was apparently using the toy makeup wrong – so I played blocks and dinosaurs with the boys.

My first best friend was a boy who lived down the street when I was five. While my younger sister played dolls with his older sister, he and I would use an illustrated encyclopedia to pick out dog breeds for each other to be, and then romp around in the basement barking and play-fighting.

In second grade, I tried to change my name in school and get my classmates to call me “Shawn”, since I thought it sounded cool and I wanted to have a boy’s name. I wrote my newly chosen name on the tag on my desk and instructed everyone to call me Shawn from now on. My classmates thought I was nuts, and for some reason were really concerned about why I didn’t spell it “Sean”. I thought my spelling looked better and was totally legit, but I just couldn’t get people to call me that.

As a kid, I never felt like “tomboy” was an appropriate label for myself, as it was generally used to describe girls who were into sports. Besides, rather than a boyish girl, I felt more like a boy who was forced to wear Easter dresses with puffy sleeves. I wanted to look cool, not pretty. I didn’t want to look or act feminine. I would kung-fu kick toward automatic sliding glass doors to create the illusion that I had bashed the doors open. “She should have been born a boy,” my mom would sigh, shaking her head.

Faced with a constant barrage of information about how I was supposed to act, think, and feel based on my body, I grew up being taught that something about me was fundamentally wrong. The fact I wanted to wear light-up sneakers instead of glittery flats was wrong. Mussing up my hair and wearing oversized t-shirts to look unruly and boyish was wrong. What do you mean you don’t have a brother and that Nintendo 64 is actually yours? WRONG.

*  *  *

In seventh grade, I had a crush on a boy in gym class. One day, some girls in the class informed me he had told them I was cute, but he also thought my hairy legs were gross. That was the moment I became aware that, as a girl, appearance meant everything and body hair was viewed as unacceptable. That evening I cried while shaving my legs for the first time. I felt so embarrassed and humiliated. Even now that I have decided to stop shaving any part of my body, I still feel somewhat self-conscious about it.

In high school, I was that weird, short, dysthymic multiracial kid who spent all their time making bizarre art or writing short stories with strange humor. I shopped in the guys’ section of clothing stores, and would joke to my friends that I should dress up as a girl for Halloween. I set up fake internet profiles and would pretend to be a hot guy to flirt with random girls in chat rooms for fun.

Although I often wished I had been born male, the idea of transitioning never really crossed my mind. My small bubble of a suburb had a reputation for white upper-middle-class snobs, and was completely lacking in any kind of diversity – I had barely even heard of the possibility of being gay, queer, or trans – which made me feel even more alienated as some kind of freakish, broken anomaly of a human being. I tried to “be myself” and pretend not to care, hiding my internal scars caused by other people’s hurtful words and judgmental stares.

I went to an art college in San Francisco, which marked the beginning of discovering the diverse world of gender identity and sexual orientation. Still, it would be quite some time before I realized what this all meant for myself. I took to wearing grungy jeans and unisex t-shirts with skateboarding logos or nerdy jokes on them, and I cut my own hair with scissors. I didn’t bond well with the other residents in my all-female dorm, and instead spent most of my time hanging out with my group of nerdy art school male friends. We played video games, wandered the streets of San Francisco, worked on homework together, and I felt like I could mostly be myself around them as just “one of the guys”.

*  *  *

After graduating from college, I finally succumbed to the pressure to present more female. It sounded easier than continuing to fight an endless gender battle, and almost seemed mandatory for “becoming an adult”1. Despite my best efforts, however, I was the worst at being a woman – I tried to learn how to put on makeup, and was always horrified with the results. I bought cleavage-enhancing, body-hugging feminine clothing – which I pulled off about as well as a pony wearing a cardigan. I cooed over what I assumed were trendy purses based on my observations of other women, and burnt my hair trying to use a curling iron. I gave an earnest attempt to locate my “motherly instinct” and find the warped facial features of human infants to be cute.

Even though I liked some of the things classified as girly, I still felt like I was lying to myself. I felt bad for pretending to be someone I was not, and I felt bad that I couldn’t be what everyone said I was supposed to be.

I didn’t want to entirely “become a boy” either, though, if I really thought about it. Even though I would rather have someone mistake me for a guy than a girl, or at least be guessing at first glance, being just a dude and looking completely like a cis man all the time didn’t sound appealing or right to me. And I definitely did not have the slightest desire to do anything to my body that would result in me growing a beard.

Exasperated and distressed and heading into my late 20s (and beaten down after more than a decade of also fighting dysthymia, major depression, and anxiety – another story in itself) I remember pouring my heart out to someone about my lifelong gender dysphoria. His only response to me was, “Well, I don’t feel that you are a man.” After opening myself up to such a vulnerable place, I felt gutted that this “friend” had completely missed the point, and somehow thought his personal perception of my gender was somehow relevant or “helpful” or more important than my own. I felt like there was no one who I could talk to about my struggle with gender identity.

Was I a woman? No. Was I a man? No.

Were those my only two options?

*  *  *

I finally came across the term “genderqueer” while browsing the internet late one night. I felt a sudden rush of excitement – there was actually a word in the universe to describe me! A gender identity I could resonate with, and was as vague and amorphous as I needed; a possibility beyond the binary options of male or female. Was this real life? Why did I have to suffer decades of internal turmoil before I was able to discover that I was not really “broken” or “wrong” after all?

Genderqueer is broad enough of a term to encompass all the possibilities of a non-binary gender identity. Depending on my mood of the moment, I can be male, or female, or (most typical for me) both at the same time to one degree or another, or even neither at all (maybe something else entirely). Identifying as genderqueer allows me to leisurely float around under the trans umbrella between any of these options, without obligation to eventually settle for one. Basically, it’s like the gender equivalent of agnosticism.

I know that being female doesn’t mean you must love pink and adhere to all the latest fashion trends, and being male doesn’t mean you must love cars and possess the ability to quote the entirety of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Gender is more than appearance, or interests, or body parts… and it might also fluctuate and change over time.

I’ve finally realized that if you’re going to be “wrong” according to the world no matter what you do… you might as well be the person you want to be, and surround yourself with people who support, care about, celebrate and encourage you to be your true self.

*  *  *

The past few years have been full of cautious exploration and growing more confident with my identity as genderqueer. Adopting gender-neutral pronouns is a newer thing for me; I’ve now migrated to preferring the non-binary pronouns they/them. I feel more free to experiment with gender expression in ways I would have never tried before. I love my short, cropped hairstyle, and I think my legs look Jiz Lee-style sexy even though I don’t shave them. I’m curious about trying binding and packing, and I no longer have to hide the fact I prefer smelling like Old Spice than Herbal Essences. When I dress more feminine, it’s because I want to, rather than because I feel like I have to.

My preference for certain gender-based words has slowly changed over time to reflect my transition into identifying outside the gender binary. Although I now use they/them pronouns, I still really like it when my girlfriend calls me her girlfriend. It sounds very sweet to me, and gives me happy feels to think Yay, I am gay! So at least for right now, in certain instances and from certain people, I don’t mind being referred to as a “girl”. As for other words, however: “lady” is out, I’m not “female”, I am not a “ma’am” or a “miss”. And I am definitely not a “woman”2, since in my mind, the word conjures up an image of a middle-aged soccer mom who shops at Chico, orders Venti Quad Nonfat 3-Pump No-Foam Mocha Explosions, and complains to her friends about her husband’s inability to do any of the housework correctly.

I must admit I currently struggle with a new fear of not appearing “trans enough” for others to accept my non-binary gender. As a person with a vulva who was assigned female at birth, will I lose the right to label myself as genderqueer if I get really excited about miniature plastic unicorns, or if my bed is overflowing with cute stuffed plushies? Am I allowed to remind people to use they/them pronouns for me if I choose to wear neon-pink nail polish and a pushup bra? I’m scared of people accusing me of not being/looking/acting genderqueer enough to adopt the term for myself, or that my experience is wrong and “real” genderqueer people are [insert characteristic] or have gone through [insert experience]. Is there some kind of test I can take that will give me an Official Trans Certification, so I can defensively point to such a document if someone tries to contest my gender identity?

Even though I know that gender expression doesn’t define your gender identity, and that other people do not get to dictate your gender, it’s terrifying to imagine being rejected by the queer community when you’ve been rejected from everyone else your entire life.

I shouldn’t have to feel stressed about my gender identity anymore, but I still do. When you’ve been told for decades that you are “wrong” and have begun to believe those words, it’s not easy to rise from there and learn to embrace yourself for who you really are.

  1. Whatever that really means []
  2. I have ALWAYS hated being called this []

17 comments on “Growing up genderqueer: My lifelong struggle with gender dysphoria

  1. In much of your story, I see my oldest daughter, who spent the better part of a year wearing only clothing from the boys’ department, and who often goes by a masculinized version of her name. She’s had crushes on girls and boys in roughly equal measure. She takes infinitely more pleasure from being told she is strong or fast than being called pretty or sweet. I’m trying hard to let her define her own identity, but it’s hard when so much of society wants to stuff her into a neat, pre-defined box.

    I’ll definitely be sharing some of your childhood tales so she knows she’s not the only one to have those feelings. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    1. Thank you! You are a wonderful parent for supporting your daughter in this way. This was a very difficult post for me to write, but seeing how sharing my experience might help others in this way make it 100% worth the effort.

  2. Thank you so much for opening up about your own personal experiences with this. I found a lot to relate to in your words, including the fear of not being trans enough to embrace my identity as a non-binary person. I enjoy having long hair and wearing revealing clothing, which often leads to people misgendering me and then feeling justified for doing so. In much the way that you occasionally enjoy being called your partners’ girlfriend, I often find that I sometimes enjoy being called a good girl by my romantic partners. I think it helps me to remember that enjoying the phonetics of a particular word or phrase and resonating with it in certain situations isn’t necessarily an absolute description of who you are inside. Only your heart can tell you that, and it sounds like you have made tremendous progress since learning about who you truly are and making that effort to love and accept yourself. Good for you.

  3. Thank you so much for writing this! A lot of this really resonated with me, I’m starting to explore my gender identity a little bit and it’s awesome to see someone else’s story out there.

  4. This is a wonderful piece. Thanks for being brave enough to express yourself. I feel like this might be relevant to my pseudostepkid, so I’m sending a link.

    For what it’s worth, anyone who challenges your gender identity is a massive fuckwart.

  5. Hell, I’m a transman who loves Pusheens and rubber ducks. Anybody who wants to complain about that isn’t worth the air they’re wasting. You’re just fine as whatever you want to be, however you want to define it.

  6. I can relate with at least certain aspects of this. I can be androgynous, and I’m attracted to women (for lack of a better word) who are also. My only question is, how do you deal with legal gender classifications?

  7. What a brilliant piece! Thank you so much. (This may be a weird thing to say, but if there’s anyone else who feels like they could have written this, and they ever want to chat (you too, lovely author!), that would be awesome. It’s so difficult to find someone who understands this experience and the total sense of alienation is quite challenging and depressing at times.)

  8. Thank you for sharing this with us, Aerie. A lot of it really resonated with me, and I feel like more nonbinary people need to talk about what makes us who we are, because like Pantophile said, there’s a lot of fear of “not being trans enough” to embrace our identities. Genderqueer and other nonbinary identities mean something different to everyone, and I’d love to see more people make posts like this.

  9. Wow,
    I commend you on your courage, to go through all of those hardships and for sharing so much here. I’m currently going through something somewhat similar myself. It’s hard to say, and just as hard to write. I’m not entirely happy with my life. I haven’t for a very long time. I believe, for many reasons, that I would be much happier as a woman. But I’m afraid to share that with my parents. Even though I’m sure that they know that I feel that way…

    Again, I commend you for your courage. And, just be you. 🙂

  10. This wonderful post has inspired me to do some research of my own- I am a 40+, unmarried woman with no kids- and I always had the feeling something was “wrong” with me because I don’t have sexual feelings towards other people, and because I am over 40 but never married and have no kids, when I tell people that they all look at me weirdly. Then people inevitably want to fix me up with a man who they know that would be “perfect” for me. I still don’t tell anyone that I am still technically a “virgin”- I have used toys many times for sexual gratification but have never had sexual contact with a person. I just have never felt any need or desire to. It doesn’t bother me too much most of the time, but it only recently occurred to me to look at other sexual orientations on the internet. And now I found out that I am “asexual”- I still have sexual urges and feelings but I don’t assosciate them with people, I enjoy close emotional relationships with others but I prefer to just take care of my sexual urges on my own. I would like to have a romantic/affectionate relationship- I prefer with a male- but I don’t require the sexual component. That said, I can enjoy sexiness and get aroused by fiction, movies, TV, and find actors sexy but in real life I just don’t associate sexual desire with any real people I interact with on a daily basis. When you talked about how happy you were to find that word “genderqueer” to describe you, is how I felt when I discovered that there was a name for what I have always felt and have been told by society makes me “strange”. So thank you, Aerie, and bless you for being so brave to talk about your experiences. Now I know what I am- “heteroromantic asexual”- and I know there are others like me and it’s OK! If anyone else is curious you can learn about asexuality at AVEN- Thank you again Aerie!

  11. I’m trying not to cry reading this, it’s like you are telling my story! Thanks so much, it’s nice to read something I can totally relate to. I also don’t feel like a boy or girl and I don’t strive to be pretty, I now cut my own hair, and to be attractive I aim to feel and be sexy. Like a pirate tho, not like a princess. And that comment about not feeling like a tomboy! I hate people saying I’m just a tomboy, specifically because I am bad at sports! I don’t see tomboys as genderqueer because they’re more like athletes… Anyways, this article is making me very happy. I also only found out about the term gender queer last year and holy shit, I still feel excited! I know labelling isn’t important but it’s helping me express how I want to be seen better, and helping me navigate the Internet for people who feel the same. Also makes sense why I love being around the lgbt community. I feel like I fit in with them even tho I’m a straight white chick I shouldn’t be able to identify with an oppressed community so well but being around trans and butch woman… I feel way more comfortable then being around masculine men/feminine woman. And I was bullied a lot for being different. I also grew up in a middle class white community and I was mostly poor to make shit worse. I was the ugly one, then somehow all my girlfriends wanted to fuck me and I was so grossed out! But confused because they always tried to change me and suddenly they wanted me…. Pretty obvious to me now that being butch attracts bi/gay woman…. I like men. What kinda men did I end up with later? Usually feminine once. It’s an interesting balance anyways, and I’m learning a lot about myself and why I was also the “weird one” cool thing is my brothers kids are a lot like me and now one of them has switched over. 14 years old and he knows he is a he, I am so proud! Runs in the family a bit 🙂

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