Guess “everyone” doesn’t include me

The scene: a monthly happy hour at a bar after work with a few other coworkers, including one who has just joined the company a couple weeks ago, and all of whom were hired after me (and who thus may never have seen all the “asexual” bits all over my resume).

After around twenty minutes of chit-chat, we hit a lull in the conversation. Then one of my coworkers has a great idea:

“I know, let’s trade bad date stories! Everyone has one of those!”

…Except for me, apparently. So when the conversation worked it’s way back around the table to me a few bad date stories later, I got to be the buzzkill who just sort of had to mumble, “Actually, I don’t date…” and get completely frozen out of that chance for social connection-building.

While extremes like this are fortunately a rare occurrence (as most of my coworkers are also nerds who can usually be swayed into other, safer, topics), it’s things like these that can kind of serve as a jarring reminder that yeah, sexual-/amato-normativity still goes strong and that I will continue to be the odd one out. And it’s been a painful reminder that while lack of dating and sexual experience as a college student isn’t particularly noteworthy, that becomes less and less true for me every year that I grow older.

It’s also a reminder of the awkwardness of the perpetual coming out cycle. When I first got hired, I was sort of out by default since my volunteer work with asexual groups was one of the few work experiences I could list on my resume, which was passed around to everyone currently in my department at the time, so I never had to worry about coming out. But over the course of several years and new hires, there’s a lot of people who may not have figured it out yet, and I’m never sure how ready I am to bring it up for the first time.

On the one hand, I don’t mind being open about it to strangers all the time, and it’s not even like I expect a very bad reaction – one of the other things that happened at that happy hour was another person being loudly out as polyamorous and everyone seemed to take it totally in stride, so I don’t think being ace would necessarily phase them that much either.

But at the same time, I’ve had enough experiences with dropping the ace-bomb and completely derailing otherwise lighthearted conversations or social connections that I’ve become wary of coming out in any setting that seems too sensitive, especially ones linked to the workplace. (So, thanks be for communicating via social media and the internet, and their nice safe layers of time delays and geographic distance to water down the awkwardness). But that means that when I get blindsided by things like this, I still freeze up like a deer in headlights and just mumble whatever evasive answer pops into mind first. Even if I know that it’s just going to prolong the do-they-or-don’t-they-know agony.

(Also, From another angle, I feel like it’s also just further contributed to my overall wariness of all-women spaces – these things rarely seem to happen to me in mixed company. Possibly because the presence of other genders preserves a level of social restraint and prevents the kind of “female bonding” intimacy that inevitably lead to expectations of shared experiences that I just can’t fulfill, whether it’s because of the aro-ace thing or the genderfeels are complicated thing.)

 

Wanting to be *[with] someone

Figuring out what “attraction” really meant was a bit of a puzzle for me, especially when I first questioned whether I was ace. I definitely knew early on that I must not be feeling quite the same thing everyone else was – I’d never really looked at someone and thoughts, “oh, wow, I really want to touch / talk to / be with / do something else with that person“. I was pretty that I’d never had a crush, or an infatuation, or lusted after someone – or at least, not that I could recognize as such. But what if I was misinterpreting my own feelings?

At the very least, I could still tell the difference between someone who would be popularly considered attractive, and someone who would not be. I could appreciate a nice symmetric face, or great hair, or sleek muscle tone, or many other of the aesthetic traits that make some what I would call good-looking.

And then, sometimes, there was also something else. Sometimes I’d see someone who would make me do a sort of double take and go “hmm“.  No physical draw to them, really, not even a desire to chat or interact in any other way. Just a “hmm” and a second glance. Was this the attraction everyone else talked about? If so, they were hyping it up way too much. Or was I just bad at introspection?

I was never really sure if I was misreading myself, until I finally realized where that extra “hmm” was coming from: it wasn’t because I wanted to be with them, it was because I wanted to be them.

Eventually, as I got more involved in conversations about attraction with both ace and non-ace folks, I would quickly realize that in fact, when most people are evaluating how attractive someone is (especially of another sex), their first thought isn’t necessarily “would I want to look like that?”. So in retrospect it seems like it should have been more obvious what was going on. But for some reason it took me a while.

In the end, the thing that I think really helped clear things up even more was listening to trans and nonbinary people discussing similar experiences they had, where they realized that, woops, a lot of that attraction to people X gender was maybe more just wanting to be X gender themselves. Knowing that other people had gone through the same “Do I want to be with them, or just be them?” confusion really resonated, and I think also reiterated one of the reasons it took me a while to realize what exactly made me do that double take – after all, if I was going “hmm” at both cute girls and cute guys, surely it wasn’t a personal look thing – after all, I was just a girl, so I should only be inspired by girls’ appearances, right?*.


*In the end it turns out that my genderfeels are complicated and my brain has no problem wanting to look like whatever handsome 6′ anime dude recently caught my eye, even if my 5’4″ skeleton would disagree with that idea.

 

 

 

Joy

At some point around when I was in elementary school,  I made the mostly disastrously decision to play softball, which is, as it turns out, an incredibly boring sport which involves spending 90% of your time standing around kicking holes in the dust waiting for something to happen.

But there was one good thing that came of it.

I was on my way to practice, or coming back, I don’t remember which – but the important thing was that I was still in my uniform: black shirt, those staticky white pants, a baseball cap over my short-so-I-barely-have-to-brush-it hair. My unisex uniform. We had stopped at a garage sale to look around, and I was picking up this pink and brown fleece vest (which, in retrospect, sounds like a horrible color combination but young me wasn’t exactly known for good taste in fashion) when I heard a voice from behind me:

“Oh, I think that one’s actually meant for girls”

Someone else at the sale quickly jumped in to correct them – “that is a girl!” But I was still stuck on the first comment – someone actually thought I wasn’t a girl! I  had always been a tomboy, sure, and I’d never have anyone pull out the old gender roles and tell me I couldn’t do something because I wasn’t a boy. But at the same time, I’d never had anyone believe that I could actually be a boy.

At the time, I didn’t really think much of what that meant, that that single comment had left me with such a lingering warm and fuzzy feeling, to the extent that I remember such specific details even to this day. But I think it was the first time that the question of gender first started to crack for me, even if it’s didn’t really start hatching open til years later.

When it comes to talking about gender and all that, the thing that has always shaped my experience the most has never been the negative things – sure, there have been the body issues with breasts and menstruation; there has been odd discomfort with being in a room full of women and being told that you belong because you share something special, yet still feeling out of place. But those never stuck with me in the same way.

What first comes to my mind when I think of how to feel about gender is joy – that feeling of joy I felt the first time I had someone assume I was anything other than female. The thrill I wish for but haven’t quite managed to find since.

I can use drugs to make the bleeding stop. I can bind my chest on the days where that’s what I need. And that helps, it really does. But it doesn’t bring that same kind of deep-seated satisfaction that I had that time.

It’s not that I’ve ever been that invested in passing. I don’t even have anything that I really want to pass as. I’m just painfully aware, that no matter what I wear or how I wear it, I get read as a girl. A girl with with an androgynous look, or a girl in really great drag – but still a girl. Maybe dfab instead, if people are a little more enlightened. Sure, people are great about asking for pronouns just in case, and all that. They do exactly what they are supposed to – but it’s not the same. And it’s not like I hate it – I still identify as mostly just a cis-girl, at least nominally. But there are some days where I just wish for something else.

I’ve always had a bit of a baby face, and smallish frame. I’m not particularly feminine, but not particularly androgynous either. I’ve always had hips that are a little too wide, shoulders a little too small, face a little too delicate. And I don’t really plan on changing that, or really need to. But I also wonder – what it would be like, if there were ways to change ourselves without painful surgery that yields limited results. If I could drag the sliders on a character design too for the real world instead of just fantasizing in my head. I wonder if I might be calling myself something else, in another world or another life.

Unfortunately, we live in a reality where that isn’t available. And my identity is shaped but that reality. But sometimes, I wonder.

*   *   *

The closest I get to that feeling again is something like 15 years later, when I’m walking down the street downtown, past the rows of resident panhandlers. Most of them are quite polite, but sometimes they get a little aggressive. This one is muttering  an insult about my hair and my clothes under his breath as I pass by:

“…can’t even tell if you’re supposed to be a dude or a lady…”

It’s supposed to be an insult, but all I can feel is joy.

So when you strip physical characteristics and social roles away…what exactly is “gender”?

some musings from a private conversation I was having a while ago, about the difference between sex and gender:

In the usual usage, as I understand it: “sex” refers to more “biological” characteristics; it refers to the m/f designation assigned to someone at birth based on chromosomes/hormones/genitalia or some combination thereof. “gender” refers to a persons personal ID as male/female/nonbinary/whatever other label. “gender identity” is usually conceived as separate from “gender roles” (traits that society associates with certain genders(or sexes, depending on who you ask)), “gender presentation” – whether a person has a stereotypically “masculine” or “feminine” visual presentation, clothes, etc.

(However, the ways that “gender” is defined can vary from context – gender in trans identity conversations may differ from gender in gender-discrimination based conversations, etc. The only real constant is that gender is not supposed to be dependent on biology.)

Everything after is my own musings:

However, as to what “gender” is once biological and social attributions are removed is something I’m not clear on, as it appears to just be a word with no given connotations. My personal theory is that in practice, “gender” is an identity comprised of and/or informed by both biological and social considerations such as physical sex and cultural expectations of those sex/genders.

In particular, I think of it as something like this: there are certain physical attributes (such as genitals, hormones, secondary sex characteristics, etc; general “male” and “female” characteristics.), which map to certain gender identities(woman, man, etc.), which in turn map to certain social characteristics (such as behaviors, appearances, roles, etc); exact mappings are determined by social context. A person’s gender is a result of them mapping themselves into this based on their physical and cultural traits, and gender dysphoria can occur when an individuals personal mappings don’t match up with the generally accepted mappings.

I also think that “gender” as a concept of it’s own can’t really ever exist without being a factor of physical sex and or cultural roles; although it may not match up with all of those, without them there is nothing to give it substance. So the differences come from which factors are strongest in a given instance.

This is something I’ve been thinking about lately, and what I wonder is this: since it seems to be a commonly accepted opinion that gender identity should not be determined by either physical characteristics or social characteristics, what is left once you strip those away?

Like, if saying “I am a woman” shouldn’t entail having a typically female physiological makeup, or taking on certain social roles, or certain clothing or behaviors or anything…then what does it mean?

This is something that I’ve been sort of musing about recently with regards to my own gender issues. Because for me, when it comes down to it, the only factor really informing my choice of gender label is my physical sex characteristics. I identify as female because that is the body I have; that is how other people perceive and react to me. Other than that, I don’t have any attachment to the label – I don’t feel like a “woman” or anything. If I were to wake one day with typically male genitalia, I would probably consider my gender male.

If anything, if I were asked what my gender is without regard to social or physical aspects, I’d probably just say “gender apathetic”; although I currently label myself as a “female”, that doesn’t mean anything to me other than that that is how other people perceive me. And because of this, I’ve spent some a lot of time questioning my gender -I’ve wondered in the past if maybe that means that I am trans or nonbinary or something – because there was never any kind of innate sense of “I am a woman”. It was just an identity based on how others saw me.

But even with all that…other identities didn’t make any sense either. Sure, I sometimes have discomfort with my chest and prefer to bind, and I often feel alienated in all female spaces, but…for me that had nothing to do with gender identity. It had to do with either purely physical body image issues or with objections to social stereotypes. Calling myself by another label or changing pronouns wouldn’t make a difference in that (which is the main reason I’ve never really pursued the idea of whether I might be trans – transitioning to another gender identity wouldn’t change anything, and the physical transitions are not really worth the side effects for me, so it’s just not a useful identity. )

So I guess what I’m wondering is…for other people, in your experiences, is there some kind of innate sense of gender other than just physical characteristics and socially attributed roles? I can’t tell whether this is really an issue with the way gender/sex are defined (which is my first impression), or if i just shows that maybe there’s something weird about the way I experience gender.