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I’m not a girl. I mean to say that biologically I am female, but I don’t feel like a girl. I never have. As a kid it was very acceptable for me to be as boyish or girlish as I wanted, because no one really cared. I got bullied at school for it, but it didn’t make me question myself. I am now 21 and more lost than ever. I tried to explain to my parents that my boyishness is not a phase, and while I sometimes am a girl, I also identify with being a boy and mostly I don’t feel like either. My mom, who is a very progressive woman, is always talking about how we need to get past the idea of gender; says that I am denying my femininity by saying this and being this way. She says it’s not very feminist of me because I am seeing more value in masculinity. This is really making me wonder if the way I feel is just a result of patriarchy? I mean I know I’ve always felt this way but I have also always lived in a patriarchal society. Does my occasional dysphoria come from my gender identity or is it from the idea that the female body is somehow sinful? I am committed to being a feminist, but I don’t know if this is me helping the problem. I don’t have a problem with being considered a girl, I just don’t always feel that way. Urgh, I just can’t seem to separate feminism from my gender.
— Unfortunately Gendered
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Dear Unfortunately Gendered,
There are so many ways in which we can understand the world. There are philosophical ideas – feminism among them. There are cultural systems – patriarchy, for instance. There are observations – how others feel and what they do in response to those feelings. There is art – teasing out the submerged threads of sense and sensibilities that shape our lives. There is experience – what we have felt in different ways in the same context, or similar ways in different contexts, which tell us something about ourselves as well as the world.
But most of all, there are our bodies. The above ways of making sense of the world – the intellectual, the sensory, the experiential, the social – are all housed in this one thing we all have: the body.
It is increasingly commonplace to say that sex and gender exist along a spectrum. Your awareness of this is present in your question. But what if we think of sex and gender that exist also, along those very axes mentioned above?
Why understand the body only intellectually or culturally? Why not aesthetically, experientially and most of all, through the senses, which is what physical being also is? Why not think of the body as a song that is made up of different styles, not just one, but joined by a sensibility, which is yours alone?
And why not explore these axes, slide across the spectrum, play with all the thoughts and facets available to you rather than feel you have to decide on one way of being alone.
You seem to be doing this. You should keep doing this so you can proceed on an organic journey to how you would like to play out your gender or assign yourself a sex. Sure, you might be reacting to social construction of feminine bodies as sinful. This reaction does not have to take on such hard significance. There is no rule that you have to be or will be stuck in that feeling – you may work your way through it in different ways (as you seem to be doing).
Where does the tension eventually lie? Everyone around us wants us to resolve everything, right away – whether it’s what you want to do for a living or as which gender you want to be living. But who has decided this inflexible timetable? Decisions are not a Twitter poll. We arrive at them by feeling our way through a complex inner process.
So, most of all, remember, that there is no reason to decide today – or ever – what you are. Just flow with it without the agenda and anxiety of immediate definition, and it will help you define yourself, the person, along with aspects of sex and gender.
That said – it may be helpful to read about other people’s explorations with these feelings and choices of queerness. An Indian book you might enjoy is No Outlaws In the Gender Galaxy by Chayanika Shah, Raj Merchant, Shals Mahajan and Smriti Nevatia which specifically looks at the experience of queer persons assigned female at birth, and does so through multiple social, cultural and political lenses.
You may also enjoy – and enjoyment is such a big part of being able to figure ourselves out my Billo Maasi always used to say – projects like the comedy show and online resource It’s Pronounced Metrosexual and its “tasty guide to gender,” The Genderbread Person.
It may be valuable to explore all of these ideas meditatively: to read the accounts of people who’ve made a biological transition of their sex, as well as those who express gender in a variety of ways to absorb all this into your being and see what resonates and what doesn’t.
It will help you realize your next steps too – do you want to seek some therapy to explore these questions more intently, find a like-minded community, take concrete medical decisions, or go with the flow for some more time, or forever.
I guess what I am trying to say is this. Our bodies are the only thing we have to call our own. That is why, those who would like to control us, sever our connection with our bodies in a variety of ways and tell us what our bodies mean, what value they have socially, aesthetically, politically. This is also why, learning to trust our bodies and holding that relationship close is very important. So, let your body lead the way.
Sometimes we do not find the support we need to become ourselves – and this does not apply only to the idea of gender but in fact everything we are – from those around us. Sometimes we have to seek more abstract communities though literature and documentation; or communities of choice, made of people who are kind of like us. It may feel a bit lonely and so, difficult. After all we want our nearest and dearest to soften the journey into adulthood. But in fact, when you take this journey yourself, discern and define your path over time, you will be able to beckon to your family members and they will follow you with love and support. Not doing this, not finding yourself, is the most profoundly lonely option there is actually. And from time to time, when you find it hard or confusing, you may feel pressured to fall on one side or other of some pre-defined line of gender. You must resist this, for your own sake. You are only 21 – the questions beginning now will open up many interconnected roads and you need to try out the routes that work for you, not the shortest distance, remembering that these identities do not have to be sealed off from each other like parallel lanes and zig zagging across the gender landscape is perfectly routine.
And as a hardcore feminist Billi of a certain age and spicy opinion, let me say this: that whole thing of valuing masculinity vs. femininity. I mean, feminism is not some cult of the female divine around which we are supposed to be conducting dated dances on a full moon night. It’s a philosophy which dismantles the hardened meanings of gender and its implication for identity and reassembles it into something looser, more fluid, more heterogenous in which all genders are differently enjoyable, valuable and equal. So basically, on that count, just chill, chill. Just chill.