Or, “Understanding Gender Denial”
Guess what, readers? I am a girl. Female. Woman.
I’m okay with admitting that. Or, really, I’m becoming better at admitting that. Growing up, I wasn’t able to. I didn’t want people to think of me as a girl. I wanted to be tough, strong—“totally b.a.” is a phrase I use nowadays that I didn’t know back then, but it’s definitely what I wanted people to think when they thought of me. I wasn’t gay and I never felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. I just didn’t want people to see me as a girl.
Why? Because I didn’t want anyone to think that they could hurt me. I had been a girl before. I’d worn skirts and headbands and got my hair cut in all the cute ways that little girls do. And I’d been hurt.
So I dressed in boy’s clothes. I wore button-down shirts and combat boots and—when I could get away with it—pants to church. No makeup or jewelry, ever. Skirts when the religious guilt and yelling got to be too much, but only huge tent-like messes that looked awful and dragged the ground. I was the first female in the history of my school to buy a men’s letter jacket, the kind with the gold sleeves. I tried to speak and sing in a lower voice.
Nothing girly was allowed in my interests. I could only like the things I thought boys liked—wrestling, hunting, BMX. I read comic books, horror, and epic fantasy. In band, I played the drums because that’s what boys played. And I didn’t just want to pack second or third snare in marching band like some dumb girl trying to be cool. No, I wanted the quads and I wanted to be the drum line captain.
To be fair, some of the “boy” interests were genuine on my part. Drumming, for example—I love the drums. I love horror and epic fantasy and comic books. But I was a die-hard Cowboys fan who had never watched a full game.
There are a lot of things I could say about a girl trying to be a boy in a rural area, but I wasn’t trying to make a statement or change anything—all I really wanted was to be safe. Gender barriers are fragile things, though. The year after I ordered a gold-sleeved men’s letter jacket, another girl did, too. The year after her, four girls did. It’s such an insignificant thing, but I like knowing that those girls got what they wanted instead of what they were expected to.
With the good, though, you take the bad.
While we were still in elementary school, I told my best friend, a boy, that he couldn’t make me cry. I spent the rest of the week taking punches, kicks, getting scratched, and having my face smashed into playground equipment by the boys in my class. I made it. I didn’t cry. But there’s still a scar where my best friend dug a freshly sharpened pencil into my thumb until the lead broke off.
For the first six years after I started puberty, I denied having my period. If we were out of tampons or pads at the house, I had to buy my own from the school bathroom. I couldn’t tell anyone when I was having cramps so debilitating that I almost passed out. I couldn’t take medicine to ease the pain.
I couldn’t do things the way that girls did. No flirting. No being catty. No long stories that could be summed up in a few words. No depending on anyone other than myself. If I had a problem with someone I either had to fight them, outsmart them, or show them up. I couldn’t have the emotions that girls had. No crying. No fear. No feeling hurt.
No one at my school ever asked me outright if I was a lesbian. I know people wondered, though. I don’t blame them. I had all the other clichéd markers of a bull dyke—including weight lifting. But I loved guys. I loved the way they looked and the way they smelled. The way they talked and joked and how their bodies moved when they walked or played sports. I knew they would feel great to touch. Kissing one would be incredible.
But I couldn’t like boys—not where someone could see me.
Then I met Josh. For two years, I admired him in excruciating silence. He was all I thought about, the only thing I’d ever wanted so badly. What was weirder, I wanted him to want me. It was as if a safecracker had started working on the locked-away girl part of my brain.
Josh and I limited our interactions to a ridiculous and incoherent set of rules. He smiled at me; I put on a pair of broken glasses and said I’d been hit by a bus. He gave me paper towels from the boys’ bathroom; I wrote a stupid song and sang it in front of hundreds of people to impress him. We spent half a class scraping a rock-hard wad of gum off the bottom of a desk; I popped it in my mouth and tried to chew; Josh laughed and got in trouble. Each new, crazy exchange was another tumbler turning.
One night I couldn’t hide it anymore. Driving home from Upward Bound, I told my best friend that, “I…think…maybe…I like Josh.” She told me everybody already knew. And since everybody already knew—and no one had changed the way they acted around me—maybe I could do something about it without jeopardizing the image I thought I’d built for myself.
I asked Josh out my senior year. We dated according to those first rules of engagement—muddy cemeteries, chemical lakes, and hanging out with each other’s grandpas. I sent Josh encoded letters without a key; he bought a family Bible. After a few months, we held hands, then he asked me to marry him.
Sorry, guys. I didn’t realize this post was going to turn into a love story. I guess that’s a good metaphor for my life.
There are still times when I find myself avoiding something because of that stubborn, scared part of me that doesn’t want to be seen as a girl. I can’t force it. Locks take time to pick. I have hope that it won’t always be such a struggle to admit that I am, in fact, female.