To say I have never felt the need to define my identity would not be fair or accurate. It has simply never seemed to me to be a thing that is static or definable. At any point in time I may present a certain way, or think of myself in certain terms, but these labels always feel transient and insufficient. I resist being pinned down. I fear being labeled one thing forever.
It might be an easier prospect if any one label had ever possessed any sense of ‘rightness’. Instead I’ve spent a lifetime feeling like an enigma even to myself, and that’s a lot less sexy and mysterious than it sounds. While labels may not be important to everyone, they are useful tools in explaining what you’re (at least superficially) about to the outside world. More important than the labels themselves is what they represent — a clear sense of self — which I don’t have. Or is it that I am just afraid of saying the words out loud and committing to being unchangeable from this point on? What if the thing I think I am today is wrong and what I really am doesn’t even exist yet?
My earliest identity was pretty typically defined by my relationships: I was a child to my parents and a sister to my brother. That I was a sister and inherently female didn’t actually establish itself as a thought process for me back then as much as that we were different from each other. I was older and he was younger. I was not him and he was not me, and therefore his role was brother and son and mine was sister and daughter. There was a certain logic and balance to that and it didn’t feel overly clouded by sex or gender, especially given that we dressed pretty similarly most of the time (hand-me-downs in the 70s meant a lot of plaid shirts and cords or overalls for both of us).
Beginning daycare and school brought new and confusing questions about my identity. Suddenly gender roles became an unavoidable part of my existence, and my less-than-skillful ability to decipher and mirror them led to alienation from my peers. Nothing felt natural or right. I knew I wasn’t like the boys (all the boys I knew were either athletic and confident or cruel and violent). But I also didn’t feel like I was one of the girls. Kids (male and female) would tell me I wasn’t pretty enough to be a girl and that my freckles made my face look dirty. I was simultaneously fascinated and terrified by the other girls in my class; they could also be cruel, but usually through emotional manipulation or shunning. I would try to fit in with them by mirroring behaviours, or giving them gifts, or dressing the same, but that just ended up painting me as the weird stalker girl. So I switched from trying too hard to not trying at all.
For a long time after that, my identity was… nothing. Invisibility. Most of this was self-preservation. Being invisible protected me from bullying at school. It protected me from abuse at daycare (It was a sickly mixture of pride and relief that I felt when one abuser said, as he repeatedly whipped my brother and I across the legs with a wet towel, “Why can’t you be more like her, you don’t hear her crying, do you?”). Being able to be quiet and disappear into myself saved me from what I was sure would only be worse abuse. It made me a boring target. I got very good at stifling my emotions and not reacting. No jumping at sudden noises. No flinching. No me. Being no person and having no identity seemed like the safest identity, even if it wasn’t a real identity at all.
Obviously I couldn’t stay invisible forever, and I made various attempts throughout my childhood and teens to reach out and form connections. Even though I feared the inevitable rejection when I was bound to screw something up and alienate them, I still ran into the occasional person who lit up my senses and made me want to know them more than my fear warned me against it. This meant locking down my gender identity. Well, sort of. It was more by a process of default than anything else. Heteronormativity was what presented itself, and so that’s what I was, at least on the surface: A girl attracted to boys. It was the only option that seemed viable in the environment I was in (or so I thought at the time: naivety might be responsible for my narrow view of the world at that time). If I wanted my friendships with girls to thrive, I needed to be straight. I’d already learned in the past that coming on too strong would put them off. I sure as hell wasn’t going to risk crossing any lines and losing my one friend (There was always only one friend. It might have been a different one friend at different times through the years, but I have always been a best friend kind of person. And that’s not necessarily a good thing: I tend to put all my expectations and desires in one pot, and that’s a lot to live up to.) Being ‘normal’ (at least on the outside) felt safe and reassuring. Spending my time with girls while mooning over the occasional guy felt right. I liked girls and boys in different ways. I just wasn’t sure if the different ways were the same as my girlfriends. I did know that I didn’t seem to be attracted to the same kinds of guys that everyone else I knew was.
Looking back, it feels a lot like I just put thinking about my identity on hold. I just assumed I was cis-gendered. Okay, that’s not entirely true. I assumed that cis-gendered was how I was going to live and that no other option was really viable. Not being female didn’t feel like an option. I also knew I wasn’t gay because I liked guys (well, some of them, anyway). But in my private explorations and masturbatory fantasies, I knew that I fantasized about both men and women sexually.
It wasn’t until my 20s when suddenly I was very strongly attracted to a friend of my best friend that I came out as bisexual to her (the best friend, that is). After that point I felt no qualms about sharing this fact with boyfriends or anyone who would ask, but it didn’t actually yield much in terms of relationships with women other than being invited into a few foursomes in college.
Once I married for the first time, I felt like any chance at being anything other than an outwardly straight woman was completely gone. Having a child left me feeling even more locked in. In a similar way to when I was a child, my identity was once again defined by my relationships, except now there was an added burden. I felt I needed to be those things out of responsibility to them. It didn’t feel possible to change who I was without causing irreparable harm to the people around me.
When that marriage fell apart, and the one after that as well, I still felt confused and dissatisfied with the image I was projecting to the world. An unfortunate choice of treatment with anti-depressants for what turned out to be anxiety due to bipolar ended up pushing me into hypomania (and inevitably full-blown mania and delusions, followed by a horrible crash of severe depression). During this period I started chasing the numbers on the scale (and on my clothes) downward. I became obsessed with the number zero, or even better, less than zero. I got my weight down to 103, sure that I could crack the lower side of the 100-mark. I made it to zero in clothing sizes and counted it as a victory when I fit into my first piece of clothing in the 00 size (and then even a pair of jeans in the juniors department). It was more complicated than anorexia or body dysmorphia. I was experiencing a recurrence of my childhood identity crisis and my desire to disappear, but with a new twist. I couldn’t be me unless I could see my bones. The only way to truly get to the truth of who I was inside would be to bring the inside out. The flesh was getting in the way of my real self. For so many years I had avoided cameras and reflections of myself because what I saw looking back at me didn’t match the image in my mind. Suddenly I could see the real me peeking through. I didn’t shy away from cameras anymore (Although ironically, there are almost no pictures of this period of time because when you develop a reputation for not wanting your picture taken, people start to take you at your word).
In spite of being a fundamentally unhealthy thought process, it was the first time in my life that I felt like I was finally coming close to understanding who and what I was, and what I was meant to become. As the pounds fell away and I lost the more obvious characteristics of being ‘feminine’, like breasts and curves (and having regular periods), and could see what lay underneath, I felt more comfortable in my body. I still didn’t feel like I knew what I was, gender-wise, but I no longer felt so locked into decisions that had been made for me before birth. My body wasn’t forcing me to be a woman.
Of course, delusions (and there were many more than just those tied into my body) generally can’t be allowed to continue unchecked, and I eventually had to be treated for my mental illness, a process that involved a cocktail of drugs that fortunately/unfortunately caused me to gain all the weight back (and much, much more). I wouldn’t say I was healthy physically or mentally (I mostly felt emotionally and sexually castrated). I felt trapped by my body again, and thanks to my crazy-person shenanigans, I had no job and anything approaching any sense of personal identity had been obliterated.
This is getting to be an awfully long story of personal discovery for it to have no personal discovery at the culmination of it.
I’d like to say that seven years from my breakdown I’ve had a revelation and finally have my shit together as far as my sexual and gender identity are concerned. In terms of sexuality, I finally became part of a community where being bisexual or gender non-conforming is accepted, but it hasn’t yielded any serious relationships with women. I did fall in love again and marry a man; although I confess that what initially attracted me to him was the fact that he didn’t entirely fit a 100% masculine mold (he’s definitely cis-male, but the first man I’ve been with who is more heteroflexible than heteronormative).
For a while, I thought I was beginning to grasp my sexuality and labeled it pansexual, outwardly explaining it as being attracted to people without regards to gender, but inwardly being pretty sure that what attracted me most was both of those things in one person, especially gender-fluid people and specifically persons with both male and female sex organs/characteristics. This set off a whole series of confused shame feelings while I tried to parse whether what I was doing was simply fetishizing transwomen. I don’t think there is a simple answer to that; ultimately I think that fantasies are fine (and private), as long as you treat real people with respect.
This revelation didn’t interfere with my relationship with my husband, since we are polyamorous and thankfully I could be open about it. But it still didn’t entirely answer questions I still had about my own gender identity. I didn’t feel male or female, but as usual I just let people assume I was female because not only did I not want to have to explain how I felt, I also didn’t have the words to explain how I felt.
Then my sexuality up and slipped away.
I know that this is not unique. There are people all over the world that experience sexual dysfunction, and while I know that technically this is what I am experiencing, it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like transformation. Whether it’s from the drugs I take or from nerve damage from my diabetes, I started losing sensitivity; gradually at first, until one day I realized it was just gone. But it’s more than that: I don’t feel any sexual attraction at all anymore. I have zero interest in sex. I am still romantically attracted to people (I think? When you go from a hypersexual being to no longer having any sexual feelings, it can be a bit tough to separate sex and romance for the first time in your life). At first this terrified me, not because I missed sex, but because I didn’t. And that hurt, because I didn’t know how to explain that to my husband. I felt a bit like I had committed fraud in marrying him and then turning around and completely changing the deal.
Claiming an asexual identity also feels like a betrayal. Coming out as asexual means more than just claiming something for myself, it is a reflection upon him and on our marriage. It also turns us into a cliché: the couple who is poly because the wife is frigid.
I’m still not even addressing my gender identity, am I? I put it off and put it off because I always have this sense that anything I lay claim to and change later on then becomes a lie. When I say I don’t have the words or terms to express who I am, that also isn’t as true as it once was: we’re smack in the middle of a gender revolution and treating my own situation like I’m some special snowflake only hurts me, because my struggle is invisible. No one knows that they mis-gender me, because I don’t correct them. Stewing over things other people say because they don’t understand me makes me sound like some emo teenager pouting in my room. But I spend a lot of time feeling “what’s the point” of coming out when it will just increase the pressures and expectations upon me to conform to a new ideal. Being cis is easy. It’s a cop out and you shouldn’t be a thing just because it’s the easy thing to do, but that it is easier no one can deny.
I don’t want to be male or female. Or at least, I don’t feel like I am either of those things. I joked to my husband that “I’m male in the winter and female in the summer,” but that was really a simplification and doesn’t suffice as an explanation. I think gender-fluid or agender feels more correct, but even those words don’t cover it properly. Maybe I’m just androgynous and it isn’t a gender thing at all, but I don’t think so. Certainly I present as mostly femme, but I can’t figure out how much of that is down to socialization: I don’t fully have the confidence to let myself not be female and explore what that might look like. Much like being openly asexual, I feel scared about what the implications are to my husband and son if I explore my complicated relationship with gender openly. It should be stated, clearly, that my husband, rather than freaking out at my revelations, has been very supportive. But it’s one of those things that you don’t really know how it will go until you’re in the middle of it, you know?
There are no great revelations here. It feels a bit like running internal diagnostics. All I can do is rule out what I’m not and work closer to the truth. I’m not straight. I’m not male or female. I don’t think I’m trans (although the trans* umbrella feels closest to correct). Asexual agender polyamorous panromantic feels something like close to right in this moment, but that might change an hour from now.
I just want to be allowed the same freedom granted to every new age hippie to ‘find myself’, at my own pace, and by my own terms.