Being misgendered at the Portland airport at 4:30 in the morning isn’t a fun thing. For one, I’m not alive enough to properly defend myself—It’s neither “sir” nor “ma’am,” thank you very much, I think—but also, and perhaps more importantly, I don’t want to be reminded that people can’t comprehend my existence. When I’ve had my morning coffee,1 I can shoot my Judith Butler arrows: Gender is fake! Everything we wear is a costume! You’re jealous of my androgynous bod! If I feel especially brave, I’ll get even more feisty: You just want to fuck me, is that it? Caffeine can do wonders for a person’s confidence.
At the crack of Satan’s asshole,2 I’m more like a puddle of primordial ooze, lacking sentience and the ability to understand language. I half-smile at the TSA agent—someone I read to be a cis woman because I don’t think a gender-diverse individual would be so laissez-faire about identity—and wave my hand dismissively when I see the switch flick in her head. Oh, this feminine person is a man, so I need to make sure I didn’t emasculate him, I imagine her thinking.3
After she returns my ID and boarding pass—a little scarlet in her cheeks from embarrassment—my anxious mind awakes. What am I wearing that made her believe I was a woman? A purple, unisex Powell’s T-shirt coupled with red checkered pants and grey slip-ons is surely a gender-neutral ensemble. Maybe it was the body underneath my clothes: overly large dimples, kind of like a subservient Asian bride, paired with limp wrists and a fierce sashay. I’ve been told I can act faggy, so it might have been one of my many faggy mannerisms that sent the message to her.
Then I think: This is Portland, for god’s sake. As a longtime visitor to my favorite Pacific Northwest queer haven, I can safely say everybody looks a little—or a lot—gay here. With all the non-binary and trans folx who pass through PDX, TSA agents should’ve received some semblance of inclusivity training. A superior must have told her sir’ing and ma’am’ing people wasn’t included in the 21st-century gender-expansive zeitgeist. Call the queer police ’cause we’ve got a cishet noob on our hands!4
I have a knack for reminding myself why I’m an Aries. There’s a purple flame burning throughout my body. I have all the queer rage, even at 4:30 in the morning when I don’t exist yet. I want to turn around and punch the TSA agent in the face so that she can remember what a badass non-binary hero I am. I’ll sprinkle gold glitter on her black eye, take a selfie with her, and post it on Twitter: “Another normie blessed with my signature hook. #Pride #EatTheStraights”
That will teach her.
But no amount of queer heroism will quell the anxiety my transness causes. As much as I posture as the chillest non-binary person the world doesn’t deserve, I lead my everyday life haunted. Most mornings, I wake up and think something dysphoric about my body. Do you want to have a penis? Do you even need one? I can’t remember a day in the past several months where I haven’t thought this exact thing—or, more accurately, haven’t been disturbed the moment I open my eyes and take in the light.
This is the part where I get intersectional. Not only am I a non-binary, queer weirdo; I’m also neurodivergent, a word I use to try to make myself feel better about my anxiety, depression, and OCD.5 Don’t get me started on being a mixed-race Asian American. I like to think of my identity, especially my gender, as a kaleidoscope—you can get lost in all the pretty edges. I get lost, too.
My anxiety doesn’t see the kaleidoscopic nature of my identity as a quality to be celebrated. Let’s call my anxiety Joe, your typical cishet white man. He hates nuance and complexity. Rather than drink a craft gin and tonic with a twist of lime, he’s more of a Bud Light guy who doesn’t want to try new beverages. He also only likes American food and chain
The binary bore Joe is, he thinks I must either be a cis man or a trans woman. I can’t possibly be any gender in between or outside this dichotomy. I’ll give him some credit: At least he accepts the existence of trans women. He’s somewhat woke. The problem is, this 'somewhat' is enough for him; he doesn’t want to look any deeper. His mind is set on the world being filled with masculine or feminine people, men or women, males or females. Transness makes sense to him when transgender people can be identified as either/or—when they successfully transition and reintegrate into the binary. He was raised to call strangers sir and ma’am—out of respect, of course—and goddammit, he’s going to continue that tradition.
When I put on the cutest boho-chic dress, topped off with dangly jade earrings—real jade, mind you—Joe doesn’t get it.
“You have hairy legs and scruff and a flat torso and a penis!” he complains. “Your outfit doesn’t compute.”
“Would it make you happy if I wore a pair of men’s fisherman sandals?” I respond. “My outfit would be partially masculine.”
He usually accepts my compromise because I’m still showing the world I have some man in me. He likes it when people see me as a man.
Many of my outfits fall into this androgynous interstice. I’ll wear a pair of women’s capris with a long-sleeved men’s shirt and rose quartz stud earrings. I’ll don a floppy safari hat with a pair of booty shorts and a tucked-in men’s graphic tee. You can find me in a women’s jumpsuit with men’s hiking boots and a costume bracelet on my left arm. Although I love the spectrum of fashion, I feel obligated to balance the amount of men’s and women’s clothing I wear. I can’t be completely femme because Joe will think I’m a woman, nor can I be fully butch because he’ll see me as a man and call into question my transness. God forbid I wear a dress with dangly earrings and women’s sandals. Joe would eviscerate me—and not in the painfully pleasurable BDSM way I like to dabble in as a sexually enlightened being.
I can’t get Joe off my back. I take medication and see a psychiatrist regularly, but he’s always with me. Sometimes I want to pull a Thoreau and live in a treehouse in NorCal to escape expectations of how I should or shouldn’t present myself. That plan would work if the problem were only external, and if I had the privilege of a cishet white man to be so reckless. Because Joe is attached to the substrate of my spirit, I can never escape. He follows me like a loyal dog, even after being beaten by its owner. I hate him but know I can’t live without him.
Discussions with Joe generally spiral into a one-sided conversation wherein I convince myself my gender is valid. Me to me: You’re okay, baby. Take it slow.6
After the TSA agent in Portland misgendered me, you bet I was gulping a gender-expansive prayer while taking off my shoes, belt, and watch for inspection. When I wake up in the morning and think the requisite dysphoric thought about my penis, I proceed to spend several minutes in the shower7 going over why a non-binary person like me can, in fact, exist.
These thoughts are intrusive to the point of danger. I’ve dissociated on the highway for reasons other than my gender, to be sure, but when Joe and I start word-slinging on I-80, it’s bloody. Too many times have I—and yes, this next part is literal, folx—almost crashed into the guardrail, cut somebody off who was attempting to merge onto the highway, or run into a car in the adjacent lane. Joe is a heavy hitter, making my brain go wobbly. My senses are dulled—I’m so gay and anxious I can’t see straight. It’s funny how the DMV doesn’t check your mental faculties to ensure you’re a safe driver.
Recently, while scrolling through the non-binary wiki as an anxious genderfluid twink does, I came across the term 'neurogender.' There’s an entire range of gender identities that exist at the intersection of neurodivergence and genderqueerness. I like to think of myself as genderanxious because of the anxiety spirals I frequently collapse into.
But I mainly feel gendersad. This isn’t a word I found on the wiki, but there must be a term to describe experiencing so much anxiety about your gender that you’d rather crash your car through the guardrail into the highway-side river. I hate feeling this way because gender is supposed to be fun and playful—that’s what my non-binary pals encourage me to see. I’m liberated as a genderqueer queen, so I should be filled with joy, not explosives under the hood of my identity, right?
The intersection of my gender and neurodivergence is less like an explosion and more like a full-fledged apocalypse. And I’m not talking about those slow zombies you can easily shoot in the head. Rather, they’re like zombified versions of professional athletes who not only run quickly but also possess the strength to crush your body like a twig. They’re zombies with special names—Runners, Stalkers, or Clickers, as in The Last of Us—but instead of infecting my flesh with a virus, their bites infest me with binary parasites.8
I can stave off Joe’s prattle long enough to feel fleeting moments of happiness as my genderqueer self, but I can’t help but wonder if his binary thoughts are right. If I love wearing dresses and dangly earrings, then I must want a vagina and breasts as well. I must want to morph into the perceived manifestation of womanhood by undergoing top and bottom surgery. Being feminine and experiencing dysphoria are telltale signs of a male-to-female trans identity. I have trans friends who identify this way, and many of them have expressed feelings like mine. The evidence points toward woman.
This is where Joe stops his argument. He doesn’t consider whether I truly want to have a vagina or breasts, nor does he factor in my love for several of my male secondary sex characteristics. He can’t see the community I have among gay men who, although they can be problematically myopic, are part of my larger queer family.
I love hanging with my fags. We go to brunch, talk shit about our straight friends, buy cute clothes together—the typical gay male agenda. I somewhat fit in based on these interests. Then I realize most of the gay men in my life are white. They’re neurotypical, middle class, and able-bodied. Some have even said transphobic garbage. Yes, honey, it’s shitty of you to say you’re only 'dick gay,' I think. What I actually communicate in words: “I understand your preferences.”
Most damningly, Joe doesn’t consider the metaphysicality of gender. Everything is biology to him, gender reduced to penises and vaginas. Why can’t he understand that I don’t feel like a man or a woman? The word “spectrum” is a cloaked ninja he can’t seem to locate. I want to smoke out his incorporeal presence so that I can tell him I’m a spirit. My energy isn’t tied to a body; I happen to occupy a male physique, but that’s more of an accoutrement, as if a cosmic being is using my form as a vessel and decided maleness was aesthetically pleasing to wear. I’m Derrida’s poststructural child, existing as a gender that circumvents the origin of language and any linear direction it may impose on my life’s 'trajectory.'9 There’s nothing ontological about my gender.
I think that’s what my identity is—something to continually unravel. Whether it’s zombie brain parasites or internalized non-binary transphobia, I can’t simply be. It’s always an intellectualization about my gender. “Judith Butler said x, y, and z, which is why my gender is beautiful in all its edges,” I might tell someone. That person would probably nod in agreement—I hang around lots of armchair philosophers who like my obscure references to queer and literary scholars. Although intellectualizing is my go-to coping mechanism, I often feel like I’m living in my mind, not in the body my cosmic gender occupies. But let’s talk Butler for shits and giggles. She used to espouse some essentialist BS. In a 1992 interview with scholar Liz Kotz for the international art magazine Artforum, she told Kotz there was a “bad reading” of her seminal book, Gender Trouble: “The bad reading goes something like this: I can get up in the morning, look in my closet, and decide which gender I want to be today,” Butler said. “I can take out a piece of clothing and change my gender, stylize it, and then that evening I can change it again and be something radically other, so that what you get is something like the commodification of gender, and the understanding of taking on a gender as a kind of consumerism.”10
As if stylized repetition were something you had no say over. As if gender were a trap you had to work within to tactically subvert societal expectations. Why can’t I decide to wear a lace top and say, “This is my gender”? Why can’t I put on a pair of denim Wranglers and say, “This is my gender”? Fuck you, Butler.11
On my darkest days, I think I made everything up. It’s like my extended family members bemoaned at my father’s viewing: “Everything is trans nowadays. Bruce Jenner”—cringe—“and all the bois wearing dresses, the gurls wearing vests. Why can’t people be normal?” Yes, sister-in-law, I understand your frustration with the state of Western civilization. Society has gone a bit bendy; millennials are job-hopping because they demand just pay, queer people are fighting for human rights, and survivors are calling out their abusers. Oh, how times have changed.
Sister, I also want you to know I used to pray to a nameless creator to make me normal. When I was younger, I wept on my bed for hours, pleading with some god—any god—to make me straight. If They couldn’t make me straight, They could at least make me a gurl so that I could fit within the bounds of heteronormativity. If only my young gay self knew I already had a bit of gurl within me. Maybe I would’ve shed less tears.
Sometimes I feel a displaced sadness for my younger self, somebody who only saw femininity in terms of straight women. There was a little gurl sitting next to a dapper young boi in my chest, but the two were always fighting. They still squabble to this day, but at least they kiss and make up. I’m sad that a depression buried itself in my bones and implanted the idea that gender and sexuality must be intertwined—that identity is a static and inescapable label.
Hindsight doesn’t solve anything though. As I grew into a young gay man, Joe was developing beside me, challenging my identity every glittery step of the way. As I began to explore my gender in earnest, he re-emerged like clockwork to attempt to push me back into an easily identifiable category, one that corroborated a narrative he believed to be the universal truth of gender and sexuality.
“Return to your gay male box!” he yelled at me.
“First of all, lower your voice,” I replied, ever the diplomat. “Secondly, the box doesn’t fit me anymore. My gender is seeping out the creases.”
“I don’t care. I’ll make you fit.”
There it is, the reason I’ll never be stable. I can wax philosophical all day about the beauty of my chaotic non-binary gender. I can even claim I’m helping to make the world a more gender-expansive place, whether by explicit demonstrations of activism12 or by merely allowing myself to exist how I want. All that’s eclipsed, however, by Joe and the society that birthed him—and perpetually produces his lifeblood. I’m beholden to an anthropomorphized manifestation of anxiety that haunts me whenever I step out of binary bounds. For fuck’s sake, I need to call him Joe to feel a modicum of comfort living with myself. A good strategy offered by psychiatrists to discourage self-blame? Yes. Another reason to question my mental well-being?
Any queer theorist who’s anything knows about Michel Foucault’s panopticon. We don’t need an institutional police force to keep men out of women’s restrooms and vice versa; people will enforce this division themselves.13 I once heard a story about a woman knocking on a transmasculine individual’s stall in the women’s restroom because she thought this person didn’t belong there. Only when the person mentioned having a vagina—apparently, the epitome of womanhood—did she leave.
I think of this woman—she must have seen herself as some gender hero—as an enforcer of biological orthodoxy. She must have felt proud when she noticed somebody of the 'wrong' gender entering the women’s restroom. I wonder if she’s told friends and family about her heroic deed.
I recently wore a dress to a restaurant and had to go to the bathroom. Since it was one of those hipster joints, the restrooms were single stall—still gendered—and required a key. When I asked to use the bathroom, the employee opened the women’s door for me. This was a first. I smiled and walked in, but it felt off. I panicked because somebody could see me exit the restroom. I remember taking my sweet time, wiping the sweat off my face and thoroughly washing my hands, to avoid re-entry into the restaurant lobby.
Perhaps that employee, a kind older man, thought he was honoring my gender. I imagine him interacting with various pre-transition trans women—there’s a lively gay bar next door—and offering them the dignity of using the 'right' restroom. Or he’s simply accustomed to seeing trans women and defaults to opening the women’s restroom for them; I’m not one to give a stranger too much credit.
I become an alien the instant a stranger prescribes a gender for me. It’s never right.
Intentions don’t matter when my gender is unfathomable. I’m brought into a system of meaning-making that wishes to fashion my life into a choice: man or woman. If I could choose to do anything, I’d burn the English language and the governments, businesses, and schools built upon it. I want to create a new process of signification outside the mycorrhizal tentacles of binarism. Our society is fucked to the point of no return. I can’t even write this essay without the word 'or'; the closest I can arrive at freedom is with “between” and “outside.” Oppositionality is woven into the fabric of our understanding, so I say let’s unravel.14
1 Black like my soul, I always say.
2 Or between 3 and 5 a.m.
3 “Sorry, sir,” she actually said.
4 A boi can wish, can’t they?
5 Do I feel better? TBD, mates.
6 An extended prayer: Your body is a trans body, no matter what anyone says. You can have all the leg hair, underarm hair, and facial hair and still be feminine. You can have smooth hands and a curvy waist and still be masculine. You’re allowed to have doubts about your penis, but you’re also allowed to enjoy having one. Your transness isn’t defined by the possibility of a medical transition—you don’t even think you want to transition, and that’s 100 percent okay. You exist as a queer flower growing in the cracks of dry earth where gender can flourish. You’re simultaneously genderful and genderless, and no, that’s not a contradiction but a coexistence informed by the repetition of contradiction.
7 Sometimes I’ll masturbate to prove why I like having a dick, but that makes me late for work and, to be honest, is so forced it often isn’t pleasurable.
8 If I were writing a poem, I’d take the zombie-bug metaphor uncomfortably far. Get this: I imagine the tiny insects burrow until they reach my organs, where they can implant eggs using their retractable ovipositors. These eggs hatch larvae that journey from my bowels to my brain, the site of their pupal development. They wrap themselves within the axons and dendrites of grey matter, a kind of placenta, and connect themselves to the neurophysiological network of my
nervous system. While developing, they send messages of binary code (I can make computer jokes!) to my body. When these pupas realize imago, they’re equipped to control my physical form, as it’s already turned to dichotomous mush. I then roam the world to infect others with the same parasites that have overtaken my body and shaped me into a man.
9 Derrida is dope. Read his stuff and immerse yourself in delightful confusion. An MLA-style citation for my academic readers: Derrida, Jacques. “Differance.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Blackwell Publishing, 2004, pp. 278–99.
10 Read the whole interview; it’s simultaneously fascinating and upsetting. Again, for the academicians among us: Butler, Judith. “The Body You Want: Liz Kotz Interviews Judith Butler.” Artforum, vol. 31, no. 3, 1992, pp. 82–9.
11 Also, I love you, Butler. You’ve given me a theoretical context to intellectualize my identity, and even if I get upset with my intrinsic desire to justify who I am to people, I feel a sense of camaraderie with you and other queer scholars. Smart folx continue to contemplate transgender existence. Their theories and criticisms grow as they learn more about the lived experiences of queer individuals. Butler, I know you’ve come a long way since 1992, and I appreciate that—I
can’t not acknowledge this appreciation I feel.
12 Your gurl ain’t afraid of a protest.
13 The best police force comprises our friends, family, and neighbors. We’re responsible for killing each other—institutions, while behemoths of oppression themselves, exist in conversation with the thoughts, actions, and overall behaviors of our society’s citizenry. Ah, Foucault, always making us aware of uncomfortable realities. Obligatory MLA citation: Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan, Vintage-Random
14 A more truthful ending: I may want the world to unravel problematic modes of signification, but that won’t fix my depression, anxiety, and OCD and how each neurodivergent point reminds me why my gender doesn’t fit into our godforsaken world. I hope I can become more comfortable with my existence. I hope I can eventually live a life that doesn’t need to be supported by constant intellectualization and self-affirmation. Here’s to survival.